Why is pre-school failing to kick-start language skills, ask researchers


According to researchers at Ghent University, quality conversations between adults and pre-schoolers are the key to language learning

Talking inequality

By the time children start school at the age of six, there is a clear division in performance between those from well-off and poorer backgrounds. This is particularly evident in their Dutch language skills.

It was thought that kids from more affluent families were ahead because they had more opportunity to learn, but this is not the case, according to a study published by researchers from Ghent University.

Since 2006, there has been a push in Flanders to get more kids from disadvantaged backgrounds into pre-school, in the hope that teaching them Dutch early would even out later inequalities. But while attendance levels have risen dramatically, the educational divide persists.

A group of researchers from Ghent University decided to find out why. They selected four pre-schools in Flanders and, over 10 months, studied verbal interactions between adults and children in the classroom, on the playground and across the school.

The quality of these conversations turned out to be the most important factor in language learning.

Conversation counts

A good quality conversation between an adult and a child involves the adult using spontaneous, natural and comprehensible language, for example speaking in complete sentences. The child, meanwhile, should have the chance to speak for themselves, with the adult asking open questions, encouraging interaction and giving hints if the child gets stuck.

But these good quality conversations were few and far between, the researchers found. Either the children got little opportunity to talk with adults, or the conversations were limited and one-way.

One problem is that the pre-schools tend to see a division between their teaching and caring roles. The caring moments offer the most scope for one-to-one interactions, but the learning focus is elsewhere.

“A better balance and vaguer boundaries between learning and care would benefit the children,” the researchers say.

There is also a great deal of dead time in pre-schools, when children are waiting in silence or are simply told what to do. This kind of interaction offers few learning opportunities.

Finally, the researchers acknowledge that pre-schools must be better resourced and teachers better supported if they are to meet these expectations.

Photo: Isabel Nabuurs/Hollandse Hoogte