14 Nov 2020

Literacy issues in kids: 'You don't want to wait for them to fall behind'

1:23 pm on 14 November 2020

Children who start school knowing fewer words and suffering speech problems can catch up faster - if their teachers take early and targeted intervention, new research has revealed.

Female Elementary Pupil Working At Desk

File photo. Photo: 123RF

The Canterbury University study is part of the Better Start Literacy project, which began with children in low-decile Christchurch schools born in the year of the earthquake.

Earlier research found more than 60 percent of these children started school with poor oral language.

The director of the Child Well-being Research Institute, Professor Gail Gillon, who led the project, said the latest findings, published in the prestigious international journal Topics in Language Disorders focuses on children who had both speech and language difficulties.

"We know from international research that those that have both [speech and language problems] are at heightened risk for literacy problems and don't respond as well to interventions.

"If it's a processing problem, if they have an underlying difficulty extracting the rules on how words go together - that will also affect their reading and spelling.

"So we wanted to know: what are the best ways to support teachers to help these tamariki develop the foundational skills they need?"

Of the original group of 247 children, 152 were identified as having weak oral language.

Forty of those children were identified as also having speech disorder.

Their whole classes had the Better Start Literacy approach, which aims to both boost vocabulary and help children distinguish the individual sounds within words (phonemes).

Classroom teachers were trained how to use the programme and got in-class support from experienced speech and language therapist and a doctoral student who was an experienced teacher , which added up to about 12 hours over the 10-week intervention period.

All children showed accelerated improvement compared with children with poor language who got the usual classroom curriculum.

"This is a really important finding to show that at a class level, teachers can make a real difference in supporting those foundational skills."

Both groups showed "significant gains" in phoneme awareness and vocabulary - but children who did not have speech problems scored higher on "decoding", or reading.

Gillon said children with speech difficulties needed targeted explicit teaching and speech and language therapy to help them transfer these skills to their reading and spelling.

"Just developing the skills in isolation isn't enough. They have to have additional support to use phonological awareness skills and their new vocabulary when it comes to the reading and writing process."

Gillon said the study also found the earlier the better.

Classes that received the intervention first were reading much better by the end of the year, regardless of whether they had speech or language problems.

Those children had more opportunity to benefit and apply their skills to learning new words.

"Success breeds success. By focusing early you get a culmulative positive effect: because children experience success, they're more motivated to read, which leads to a more positive long-term outcome.

"You don't want to wait for them to fall behind their peers."

Ongoing monitoring was also important to see how they were responding and who might be a at risk for later problems, so teachers could adapt and modify their approach.

"It's not about benchmarking or labelling children but seeing how they respond to teaching and what needs to be in place so they can pick up skills that are foundational for literacy."

The results showed it was "not inevitable" that a speech problem would become a reading problem, and that even a short period of intensive intervention could make a major difference, she said.

The Ministry has already extended the pilot into other schools in Auckland and Christchurch, and Gillon said they were in discussions about making the programme more widely available.

From 1 December, the university is running afree open access online course around the importance of phonological awareness, including ideas for parents and educators.

From next year, Canterbury's College of Education, Health and Human Development will also be offering micro-credentials for teachers on the structured literacy approach.

"We're very excited. It's great to see research used in practice and to help more children.

"Providing support early in their first year at school is going to ensure these children have the necessary foundational skills for literacy success that's going to lead to positive learning experiences, and may in turn lead to stronger life outcomes."

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