There were three or four speakers, but the one who stood out to me was Tony Wilson. I had never actually heard of him before, though it seems he participated in Race Around the World back in and has since then been writing children's books.
He was speaking about how literacy begins, and particularly how it begins before children actually get to school and start learning their ABCs. He said studies had been done which showed that language acquisition and vocabulary developed in early childhood supports the development of text based literacy. He said, it has been shown that children of higher educated parents tend to hear an average of 2200 words per hour, whereas child from lower socio-economic households (he said 'parents on benefits' but I'm assuming he means parents of lower end-point education) only hear 600 words per hour on average, and that this disparity is reflected in reading skills acquisition at school.
He also said in Finland - yes, of course Finland, poor Finland, people are going to start resenting you like the nerdy, bookish kid in the class who makes all the other kids look stupid - the first year of school; whether you call it prep or kinder, encompasses play activities designed to develop spoken language skills - songs, word games, story-telling etc. He said this helps to lessen the gap between children whose parents spoke with them a lot, and broadly, and those whose parents were busy just managing to get food on the table and pay the bills.
Tony spoke about how children who don't learn reading skills well in prep, will find it even harder in grade 1 and harder again in grade 2, and after that they're pretty much on their own as teaching focus shifts from 'learning to read' to 'reading to learn' in grade three.
He spoke of how underdeveloped reading skills promotes challenging behaviours in class, which can lead to early school exits and lifestyles which land adolescents in jail. He spoke of a program a mate of his has run in one jail to improve literacy and the difference this makes to prospects of inmates when they are released.
All of this came back to making learning to read an enjoyable experience with a solid base in language acquisition and vocabulary building.
So, anyway, today I went to school pick-up bursting with this new perspective and I told another mum about it because I thought it was so wonderful, especially in the light of Australian education moving more and more towards attempting to teach reading skills in kindergarten, to 3 and 4 year olds, when their language skills are even less well developed than they are in preps... And to my great disappointment, the response I received was, 'Yes, but what about the kids who don't need to be 'brought to the same level'?'
Her inference was that children who had better language skills already would be 'held back' by another year of playing games and singing songs.
I don't understand this way of thinking.
Firstly, I was a child who at four-and-a-half, could already read. At five, while the other kids in the class were learning 'a' and 'the', my teacher (who was brilliant, by the way) set me the task of writing a story book and illustrating it. This didn't hold me back, nor did it distract her from the task of teaching the other students. Hearing the other kids learning their ABCs only reinforced my own previous learning.
Secondly, if we neglect the students who haven't had the benefits of broad language acquisition before starting school, those students are more likely to feel dis-enfranchised by grades 2 and 3 and will become the disruptive spirits in the class when reading is no longer being learned, but being utilised to learn.
Thirdly, Australian literacy levels are appalling (I am referring to functional literacy). In most of Scandinavia children do not learn to read until they are seven, and yet, their literacy levels outstrip ours. Learning to read early does not make the reader a better reader, or more intelligent or more capable. Many children in our schools struggle with reading in the first year or so of school, and it damages their self-esteem, they begin to believe they are hopeless or cannot learn, and then suddenly in the last half of their second year it all clicks into place for them - because that part of their brain has snapped ON... Coincidently, most kids have turned seven in the meantime. However, if that happens after a child has decided reading is 'not for me' or 'is boring' or is 'potentially threatening to my sense of self as a capable person', the love of reading may be lost. It becoming a means to an end, rather than an enjoyable pass-time.
I was relating this story to the Grumpy Old Man and he said it reminded him of an old Aussie saying, 'Bugger you, Jack, I'm all right.' In other words, the attitude of 'Don't pull me down, just because you can't swim.'
If we don't support those children who have not developed robust language skills by the time they reach primary school - we may end up paying for that attitude through our tax dollars down the track...