The article in the WA Sunday Times on January 29th 2012 regarding the outcomes of the first Literacy and Numeracy Tests for Pre-Primary children was concerning.
In particular, the finding that under half of WA Pre-Primary children were able to re-tell a simple story with a beginning, middle and end was anxiety provoking. Story Retelling or Oral Narrative is an important oral language skill which should be mastered before Pre-Primary entry.
The fact that so many children are not able to perform this Oral Narrative task suggests there is not a sufficient oral language focus in our Early Childhood education. Oral language abilities are crucial for the development of reading comprehension and are equally as important as word awareness and phonological awareness skills. Play is an important activity children need to engage in to develop rich oral language skills.
The 2006 Literacy and Numeracy Review called for the development of more resources for teachers with regard to oral language development. These results would suggest this recommendation has fallen on deaf ears. Liz Constable commented in the article that these results "reiterated an important lesson for every parent - to begin speaking to their child from the moment they were born". Many children with oral language issues are spoken to from the moment they are born but simply speaking to a child is not enough. Some children require specialist speech and language programs. Children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds often do not have the toys, books and access to transport to provide a stimulating, language rich environment. These children are likely to succeed in the education system if their oral language skills are developed to a sufficient level to provide a solid foundation for literacy.
The specialised Language Development Units provide intensive oral language programs but each year thousands of children are turned away from these Units as there are insufficient places.
In Victoria, South Australia and Queensland, speech pathologists (who specialise in the promotion of early communication and literacy skills) are employed within individual schools to support teachers with oral language programs, and to provide ongoing speech therapy.
In WA the Department of Education provides consultative teams but children who are considered to be at risk for oral language development require regular,(ideally daily and at least weekly) ongoing access to speech pathology for programs to be successful.
Speech Pathologists may work with a child directly or through the teacher with specially designed education programs. However, the success of any program is dictated by how frequently the therapy is delivered. There are very few speech pathologists working in mainstream schools alongside teachers in WA.
We have had two Education and Health Standing Committee Hearings and a Literacy and Numeracy Reviews since 2006. The Education Department in WA is still not prepared to develop policies to work in partnership with specialist speech and language clinicians and parents on oral language programs within all school settings. We know that up to 50% of Australian Pre-school children may suffer from a type of communication impairment.
Children who enter school at a disadvantage do not need to stay at that disadvantage provided their oral language abilities are developed to a sufficient level before literacy skills are introduced. I strongly disagree with the comments made by the former ALP Early Childhood Years Spokesperson Linda Savage's comments in the same article.
Funding needs to be allocated to develop a Curriculum with the flexibility to cater for children with poor oral language skills at school entry to enable them to reach their academic potential.
All schools require rich,oral language programs as a foundation for literacy.