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Source: University of Canterbury

20 August 2020

A new research project involving nearly 600 pre-schoolers from Canterbury and Central Otago is aiming to improve Kiwi kids’ early literacy development.

  • Professor Gail Gillon is director of the Child Wellbeing Research Institute at UC, which leads The Better Start National Science Challenge Successful Learning team.

Developing early literacy skills makes it easer for children to learn to read. Children who enter school with these skills have an advantage that carries with them throughout their school years and into success and prosperity in adult life.

The new research project will focus on enhancing the ability of early childhood teachers to build children’s skills in oral language development, which is a key precursor to successful transition to school and also underpins children’s social development and resilience, and their ability to connect with others.

The need to improve the way oral language skills are supported in New Zealand early childhood education is a recognised national issue.

The Better Start National Science Challenge Successful Learning team, based at the University of Canterbury (UC) Child Well-being Research Institute, have formed a partnership with Kidsfirst Kindergartens to help teachers build children’s oral language development and self-regulation. Twenty four early childhood centres in Canterbury and three in Central Otago are taking part, involving 583 children aged three and four years old. Whānau engagement will be key to help ensure that strategies used in the early childhood centre environment can also be used at home.

The co-lead investigators for the research project, Professor Gail Gillon and Associate Professor Brigid McNeill from UC have based the new oral language approach on strong research evidence connecting early literacy and learning success. The approach, named Words Can POP, focuses on children’s word learning or vocabulary growth, quality conversations to extend children’s oral language skills, phonological awareness, oral narrative skills, and print awareness knowledge.

Children’s growth in language, self-regulation and emerging literacy skills will be monitored throughout the project, which will follow children into their first year of school. The impact of the approach on teacher knowledge and teacher practice, alongside whānau perception regarding the acceptability and usefulness of the approach, will  also be tracked.

It is expected that by enhancing young children’s oral language development in areas critical for literacy success during the early childhood period that they will experience more successful early literacy experiences once they begin school.

“A positive early start to literacy for all children is fundamental to reducing current education and health inequities,” Professor Gail Gillon says.