Social Learning, Language and Literacy

By Hay, Ian; Fielding-Barnsley, Ruth | Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, March 2012 | Go to article overview

Social Learning, Language and Literacy


Hay, Ian, Fielding-Barnsley, Ruth, Australasian Journal of Early Childhood


A CONSISTENT THEME IN the research literature associated with children's learning and cognitive development is the importance of appropriate instruction in the early school years, with the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development report (Hall & Moats, 1999) claiming that appropriate instruction in the Prep Year was four times more effective in improving a child's reading skills, compared to the situation of appropriate instruction being delayed until Year 4. Children's school achievement is, however, multi-dimensional and dependent upon a range of interactive skills. For example, in terms of reading achievement the evidence is that both vocabulary knowledge and phonemic awareness influence children's level of alphabetic knowledge which is highly correlated with their sight word knowledge (Byrne, Fielding-Barnsley & Ashley, 2000) which directly and indirectly influences children's level of reading fluency and then reading comprehension (Neuman & Dickson, 2001 ; Scarborough, 2005; Share & Stanovich, 1995).

Underlying these academic achievements in literacy are two learning processes. One is the children's developing cognitive memory which needs to quickly process the orthographical features of the word (its letters and unit sounds) and link this to the semantic meaning of that word (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1997). The second process is motivational, with the child needing to interact with enough text to become an independent reader, able to use a range of semantic and orthographical strategies to comprehend and decode words quickly and so achieve meaning from a variety of texts (Bishop & Leonard, 2000). There is recurring evidence that these two processes are sensitive to the quality of the language and literacy environment, both in the home (Catts, Fey, Zhang & Tomblin, 1999; Farkas & Boron, 2004) and in out-of-home settings (Barnett, 2001; Paul, 2007). For example, in respect of communicative exchanges, Hart and Risley (1995) reported that children of middle-class, well-educated parents have two to three times as many opportunities to converse with their parents than do low-income children. There is also evidence that these language and emergent literacy skills can be influenced by interventions designed to improve the overall richness of the child's language and literacy environment (Senechal, 2006; Wasik, Bond & Hindman, 2006) and in programs that increase the adult and child language interactions (Bierman et al., 2008; Hay & Fielding-Barnsley, 2006, 2007; Whitehurst et al., 1994).

Closing the language processing gap

Home factors play a significant role in language and dialogue patterns that influence children's learning in the early childhood setting (Morgan & Goldstein, 2004; Nation, 2005) but there is significant variability in terms of children's readiness for formal classroom reading instruction. In particular, Australian research on young children's language levels and their socioeconomic status identified that, in terms of receptive language (listening), approximately 15 per cent of the children starting Year 1 did not have the receptive language skills to cope fully in that environment. A similar pattern was identified for children's expressive language (speaking) abilities, with one in three children below the five years-six months expressive language benchmark (Hay & Fielding-Barnsley, 2009). In addition, children from lower socioeconomic status (SES) homes had greater delays in their language readiness for school, compared to children from higher SES homes. These gaps in children's vocabulary and language competencies need to be addressed and appropriate programming provided (Hall & Moats, 1999; Morrow & Tracey, 2007; Paul, 2007), otherwise motivation for reading drops away and children are delayed in developing their alphabetical knowledge and word fluency skills.

To facilitate closing this expressive and receptive language gap for children the authors suggest the following. …

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