Language for life: funding for new early literary assessment tool

Professor Gail Gillon and her team have received funding to trial an innovative new assessment tool after finding that 61.5% of children starting school in some areas of Canterbury have poor oral language skills.

Professor Gail Gillon, Director of the Child Wellbeing Research Institute at UC, will lead research into assessing young children’s spoken language skills.

Professor Gail Gillon and her team at the University of Canterbury’s (UC) Child Wellbeing Research Institute (CWRI) will address poor spoken language skills in children starting school in Canterbury, with new funding to trial an innovative new assessment tool.

In some areas of Canterbury, alarming numbers of children are starting school with low oral language skills.

Professor Gillon’s team assessed 247 new entrant children in lower decile schools in Christchurch. They found that 61.5% of the children had poor oral language skills, and 40 of these children also had speech difficulties.

As part of their work developing the Better Start Literacy Approach, to find the most efficient and effective ways to accelerate early literacy development, the team then created a culturally responsive online oral language assessment for pre-school aged children.

They recently received $100,000 from the Canterbury Medical Research Foundation (CMRF) to trial this assessment tool.

Positive health and life outcomes are associated with higher levels of literacy, Professor Gillon says.

“Poor oral language skills at new entrant level can lead to ongoing difficulties with literacy, which can then lead to poor outcomes in other areas such as health. Therefore it is crucial that we identify these children before they start school, and introduce appropriate support that will help to get them back on track with their language development and life journey.”

The CWRI research will focus on four-year-old children with speech-language impairment, those at risk for dyslexia or learning difficulties, and those who have low levels of oral language. The team will investigate how reliably the game-like and culturally appropriate assessments can monitor the development of children’s oral literacy.

They will work with some 50 pre-school children and their whānau, selected from the larger Better Start National Science Challenge research group of 600 children.

The team’s approach is to support children and their families through a holistic, strengths-based lens.

“A strengths-based, or solution-based, perspective within this research context will focus on the learning environments, health practices, family and community supports that lead to successful outcomes,” Professor Gillon says. “We want to recognise children’s efforts and their emerging capabilities and strengths and really encourage their progress.”

The research aligns with Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu’s health strategy, which seeks to empower whānau to engage in determining their own health pathways. “Enhancing equitable health outcomes for Māori, Pasifika and those from low-income families is an urgent national priority and is a priority for the Canterbury region. Improving individuals’ health literacy is vital to reducing health inequities, especially in this Covid environment.”

The CMRF has provided $30 million in funding to Canterbury-based medical researchers since its inception 60 years ago. This year’s funded projects, totalling $1 million, include studies on heart failure; Alzheimer’s disease; Parkinson’s disease; cystic fibrosis; Legionnaire’s disease; pneumonia and the ongoing impact of the mosque attacks.
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