The Language And Literacy Skills Of Primary School Age Children Enrolled In A Specialist Behaviour Unit

Year: 2015

Author: Stark, Hannah, Eadie, Patricia, Snow, Pamela

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Background. A key feature of early childhood is the development of expressive and receptive language skills – a process which begins in infancy and extends into early adulthood. Oral language skills are the critical underpinning of early literacy. Recent research has identified that more than half of young offenders present with a language disorder (Snow and Powell, 2008). Many of these young adults have histories of social, emotional and behavioural difficulties, and have disengaged prematurely from formal education.
Children who have experienced maltreatment (abuse and/or neglect) perform poorly on measures of expressive and receptive language (Culp et al, 1991). In Australia, however, relatively little is known about the language skills of young school age students with identified social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. Children from lower socio-economic status families receive language input from parents that is quantitatively and qualitatively less enriching than that received by children of more affluent/educated parents (Hart & Risley, 1995). As disadvantaged families are over-represented in child protection statistics it is important we better understand and attempt to redress the oral language imbalance for these vulnerable young children.
Method. This study examined the classroom and conversational language skills and literacy abilities of 30 vulnerable primary school age students who are developmentally and educationally at risk. All assessments were conducted in the school setting by a speech pathologist who was a member of the school community, and with whom all students were familiar prior to testing. All students completed a range of language and literacy measures, including the Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals – 4th edition (CELF-4), the Sutherland Phonological Awareness Test (SPAT), and the Renfrew Bus Story, a narrative language measure. A spontaneous conversational language sample was also recorded with each student. Information about students’ neurodevelopmental diagnoses and IQ scores were also collected.
Results. While many young male primary school age students have core language abilities within the average range, their narrative and conversational discourse skills are an area of relative weakness. In many cases, a discourse level language impairment is present. Relative to younger students in this sample, a higher proportion of male upper primary school age students present with language impairments in both core language and discourse abilities. Females are proportionately under-represented in this population of students with recognised social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. Female students have been found to have relatively weaker communication skills than their male peers. Collectively, all students have poor literacy skills, and have limited phoneme-grapheme correspondence knowledge.
Conclusion. This study has implications for the types of language-based classroom supports needed by primary school students who present with social, emotional, behavioural and/or academic difficulties. The predictive nature of narrative skills in relation to later academic and social outcomes further highlights the importance of the findings. Implications for current assessment and funding protocols will be discussed. Alternative approaches for school-based assessment and intervention will be discussed