Early learning centres failing to foster language

Following a damning ERO report, the Government is introducing a Canadian speech and language programme into selected low decile early childhood centres. Photo: Getty Images

Children are arriving at school with limited speech and an official report shows many early learning centres fail to improve their language skills. The Government announced extra spending in the Budget in response, but that spending on a Canadian programme for low decile early learning centres is being challenged, Lynn Grieveson reports.

Goldilocks had to choose between porridge that was too hot or too cold, while Jack and Jill went up the hill and then fell back down again.

Once upon a time you could assume most children in New Zealand would have heard these stories. But now, teachers say, that shared lexicon of childhood is being lost.

Does that matter in our culturally diverse society? Perhaps not, if they were being replaced by other stories and rhymes rich with language and children were still learning to communicate effectively.

But teachers are also reporting that fewer children are arriving at school with good oral language skills, and an Educational Review Office (ERO) investigation has found that many early learning centres and schools are failing to pick up the slack.

The ERO report, published in February this year, found 31 percent of early learning services had limited or no focus on supporting oral language learning and development. In many of these services, the ERO inspectors observed "poor quality interactions" and some "inappropriate responses," as well as a general "lack of rich conversations between children and between children and teachers."

Only 19 percent of services were described as "well focused" on this vital aspect of children's development.

Primary schools did better, with 35 percent described as doing well at monitoring and extending the oral language of their students. But the ERO inspectors found 29 percent of schools showed "little evidence of responsiveness to oral language learning needs ... or attempt to create coherence in approach."

Teachers noting a decline in speech

Schools need to be increasingly focused on the issue, as teachers report a drop in the number of competent speakers among their new entrants.

Speech and language therapists say a lack of historical data makes it difficult to back up the teachers' observations of a decline, but the "Now We Are Four" report from Growing Up in New Zealand released in late May found 26 percent of the 4 year olds surveyed were "never or rarely able to communicate in a clear and logical way". A 2011 report by Auckland University's Jannie van Hees found around a third of Auckland's new entrants lacked the oral language and early literacy skills they needed to learn to read easily.

Omakau School principal Tracy Richmond researched the issue as part of a sabbatical project last year. She found an emerging pattern of children arriving at early learning centres and schools with "poor language structures, a lack of vocabulary to express their thoughts and feelings … and an inability to form sentences."

Richmond told Newsroom that the decline had been noticeable across her own 28 years as a teacher.

"I think we see less and less highly competent kids. Before there was kind of a smattering across all abilities. You’d have a few that weren't great, but the majority would be fine and you would have some very, very competent five year olds coming in. Now they are rare. And there's probably less in that middle group as well.

"As part of my study, the schools that I visited were across all deciles. And there weren't any teachers that were saying, 'no, we don't have issues'. Maybe the issues are slightly more prevalent in the lower decile, but certainly just because you are in a decile ten does not mean there aren't issues. So I would say across the spectrum it's quite commonplace actually."

"One of the things that we are noticing in our schools, and I know it is something they are seeing in other schools, is just that lack of knowledge about common nursery rhymes, Goldilocks and the Three Bears and so on, they just don't know those kinds of stories anymore. They haven't been exposed to them often enough to take on the language of them.

"Those sorts of things are just sort of going from our culture and there has been a change in what kids are coming to school with. They do have language, some children have language around technology and things like that, but it's different to what we might have had in the past and it's a new thing, and there's definitely a deficit as well."

The impact of time spent in early learning centres

As well as less family time spent sitting around talking, playing board games or reading books, Richmond also points to the amount of time children are spending in early childhood centres.

"Their access to adults, especially one to one, is more limited than it would be at home. (There's a) lack of conversational language. A lot of the language that is used in the early childhood centres is more instructional, rather than conversational, so a lot of children are missing out on that opportunity to build that sort of language," she says.

She is critical of the support and direction schools have received from the Ministry of Education, saying "for many years there has been little Ministry-driven direction around language. Schools have kind of done their own thing. Some have been really proactive around what they have done, and others have kind of thought 'oh, well, kids just pick it up as they go along'.

The ERO report backs this up, calling for the Ministry to develop a "more coherent and systematic set of curriculum expectations, assessment tools and resources."

Budget spending on speech

In response, the Government has budgeted $6 million in new spending to pay for a new "international evidenced oral language programme" for 3 and 4 year olds in early learning centres in low socio-economic communities.

The Ministry of Education refused Newsroom's Official Information Act request for details of the programme and the briefing papers that went into the Government's decision, but in a Budget speech to the National Cross Sector Forum, Education Minister Nikki Kaye revealed the funding would pay for the introduction of a programme called "ABC and Beyond" from a Canadian non-profit organisation, The Hanen Centre.

Early childhood teachers in the low-decile centres will be trained in the "ABC and Beyond" method and provided with resources. The organisation's website says teachers are trained in groups of up to 20 by a Hanen-certified consultant or speech language pathologist over seven sessions. They can also have three "individual coaching, videtaping and feeback sessions" where they practice using the programme with their students.

The apparent decision to spend all the funding on an imported programme rather than on getting more trained speech and language therapists into centres and schools has frustrated some in the sector.

"We welcome any additional resource in the early years because there is such a chronic shortage of speech language therapists, but our big concern is that it will be some glitzy programme that looks good and sounds nice and simple and easy, and gets imposed into the New Zealand situation, whereas we would much rather prefer real investment in speech language therapists and real support through Group Special Education in the early years, which is chronically woeful," said Amanda Coulston, CEO of Whanau Manaaki Kindergartens.

Likening it to the introduction of the Hippy (developed in Israel) and Incredible Years (developed in Seattle) early intervention programmes, Coulston says: "really, again, it’s importation of programmes from overseas rather than consulting and genuinely engaging with the sector.

"I liken it to you buy yourself a ready-made TV dinner from the deep freeze or you actually go out and get your fresh veges and your decent meat and cook it yourself. And that is really what it feels like. They have these little cookie cutter programmes and say they are investing money and they are actually not."

In a statement to Newsroom, the Speech and Language Therapists' Association said the Canadian programme, a training package to "upskill the competencies of ECE teachers", had been well-evaluated and was already being used by some New Zealand services.

But the Association said the Ministry needed to ensure it was the "right fit for the communities into which it will be introduced", and recommended further consultation before finalising any decision to spend the whole $6m of new funding on one programme.

"The ABC Hanen programme may not be the best or most evidence-based for our bicultural and multicultural communities and to children with additional communication needs," it said.

"We need a diverse portfolio of options including creative ways of engaging parents and early childhood teachers and perhaps having a speech-language therapist on site for part of the week – four hours on the floor and four hours resource making and coaching."

The Association also called for more investment in older children, something that is supported by Richmond.

"I certainly support starting in those early years because that's where you are going to make the greatest difference long term, but there are children currently in our school system who have a huge issue around oral language. We've got those current pupils we need to be doing something about as well," she says.

Richmond says the schools she visited were all self-funding their own programmes through their operational grants to help their students with communication challenges. They were either programmes they had devised themselves or had purchased. The shortage of specialist speech and language therapists for schools meant many parents were paying privately for therapy, including many on low incomes. One teacher told Newsroom of a child in their school whose family was paying for private speech therapy while the father worked at KFC.

Asked by Newsroom if the $6m Budget allocation was enough to tackle the problem of poor performing ECEs, Kaye said there was a funding review underway into early childhood education, "so we can always review that".

"The $6m we are investing is going to reach a number of early childhood centres particularly in those communities where speaking and listening is an issue. The advice that I have had is that will provide a significant lift, but of course we can always review that over time," she said.

Asked about the criticism of all the funding apparently going on an imported "cookie cutter" programme, Kaye said the details about it hadn’t all been announced, "so there are some rumours flying about, but we have to confirm with the relevant sector and union about how the programme will work."