Aboriginal Young Children's Language and Literacy Development

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Progress, Promising Practices and Needs
Jessica Ball, M.P.H., PhD
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This paper provides a summary of what is known about language and literacy development of Aboriginal children under six years living in Canada. It also characterizes some of the views on this topic expressed by Aboriginal leaders, parents, Elders and early childhood educators, as well as by speech pathologists who have worked with Aboriginal children. The focus is on the speech-language development in the early years as the foundation for emerging literacy, as language develops rapidly from infancy throughout the preschool years and prevention of difficulties are best addressed during the preschool years.

The author’s review of existing research in the area of language development of Aboriginal young children uncovered a gap. There were no published, peer-reviewed, systematic research papers or studies that documented speech-language trajectories, difficulties or secondary problems among Aboriginal young children, nor were there any early intervention strategies delivered to Aboriginal children or families. The review therefore relied on selected demographic data and a variety of informal sources including grey literature, consultations from experts and leaders, anecdotal reports and pertinent research.

Ball’s review provides a rationale and sets priorities for research and development that will inform implementation and evaluation of community-based, collaborative, culturally-fitting approaches aimed at enhancing environments for Aboriginal children’s language and literacy development within the context of their families.

Key Findings

  1. The early years are the most sensitive time for language development and the most opportune time to promote language learning and to intervene for remediating difficulties.
  2. Language, thought and culture are inextricably mixed. A powerful way to engender Aboriginal children’s cultural identity, cultural knowledge and connectedness with their cultural community is to promote Aboriginal children to learn their indigenous language.
  3. Supporting early optimal language and literacy development and improving the socio-economic environment in which Aboriginal children develop can significantly increase later success in school.
  4. Weak oral language skills in the preschool years are a strong predictor of lower academic achievement, particularly for children in lower socio-economic families. Early interventions aimed toward increasing language proficiency can also increase the probability of school successes, opportunities for employment and economic security.
  5. Rather than being based on an assumption that European-heritage languages and literacies are normative and ideal, new approaches must be based on an assumption that Aboriginal languages, including varieties of English and French, literacies, parenting styles and pedagogies are equally valid and useful for promoting optimal development outcomes.
  6. Many Aboriginal young children are not seen by developmental specialists (e.g. infant development specialists, child care practitioners, speech-language pathologists, pediatricians).
  7. Over half of Aboriginal children do not have access to child care programs where their speech-language development could be monitored and difficulties noticed.
  8. Aboriginal children were not systematically sampled in the two national longitudinal cohort studies of the growth and development of Canadian children and youth.
  9. There are no monitoring, screening or diagnostic tools that have been validated for use with Aboriginal children. Screening and assessment tools in current use in Canada have been developed and normed in research involving predominantly children of European heritage in urban settings with English or French as their first language.

Recommendations for Future Research

The author recommends a targeted Aboriginal early language and literacy initiative that incorporates the following:

  • A basic research agenda that includes collecting baseline data, developing culturally appropriate screening and diagnostic assessment practices and tools in relevant languages.
  • A national consultation in order to promote meaningful collaboration across provinces, territories, across disciplines, across professions and across regulatory bodies.
  • Leadership in the form of an office of Aboriginal advisors for Aboriginal young children’s language and literacy programs, and partner opportunities for training initiatives of practitioners.
  • Improve practice by introduction of programs that promote social interactions that stimulate language and encourage self-confidence in expressing themselves within the family and community environments.
  • Develop new Aboriginal capacity to staff programs
  • Establish new investment priorities that develop leadership, deliver training and innovative family, community and home language programs that are culturally and linguistically appropriate to meet the needs of Aboriginal children; enable community-university partnerships that create and mobilize new knowledge about Aboriginal early language learning

What Do You Think?

  1. Do you strongly agree or disagree with the key findings in this paper?
  2. Are there different goals for programs involving Aboriginal young children, or certain populations of Aboriginal young children, compared to programming goals for non-Aboriginal young children?
  3. Are dominant culture tools for measuring the impacts of early language or literacy program equally valid and relevant for measuring the impacts of programs on Aboriginal children’s language and literacy, or do we need to rethink ways of measuring outcome criteria for programs involving Aboriginal children, or sub-populations of Aboriginal children?
  4. What are your thoughts on the conclusions presented in this paper?
  5. Should there be certain kinds of policies developed to support culturally-specific (or perhaps family-specific) goals for Aboriginal children’s language development? If so, what might these policies address/what might these policies enable?
  6. Can you provide examples from your own experience or other research that support or challenge the evidence presented in this paper?
  7. Is there merit in continuing to develop and evaluate the concept of different learning styles with reference to potentially unique needs of some Aboriginal children’s emerging literacy?
  8. What are priorities for research to demonstrate the impacts of current efforts to support optimal outcomes for Aboriginal children’s language and literacy? (e.g. what methods are needed, what programs should be evaluated as top priorities, etc.)
  9. A targeted Aboriginal early language and literacy initiative has been suggested in this paper. Can you prioritize these suggested steps towards this initiative?
  10. What are program priorities for promoting Aboriginal young children’s language and literacy?
  11. Are there any additional points or information you could provide that would add to the development of a targeted Aboriginal early language and literacy initiative?
  12. What needs to be done in professional training pre-service and in-service programs to better prepare early childhood educators, speech-language pathologists and teachers to support optimal development and confidence of Aboriginal young learners?
  13. What impact do you feel this paper will have on new funding programs for Aboriginal children?
  14. Are there key points presented in the paper that you feel are particularly important for consideration in the development of a national literacy strategy?
  15. Is there value in drawing upon language or literacy research involving Indigenous children in New Zealand or elsewhere beyond Canada?
  16. What are the implications of First Nations English Dialects (or home dialects of English) for Aboriginal children’s language development and school readiness?
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