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Competencies that underpin children's transition into early literacy.

There is a reported association between children's language development and their social and academic success in school (Bishop, 1997; Goodyer, 2000; Hay, Elias, Fielding-Barnsley, Homel, & Frieberg, 2007; Senechal, 2006). In terms of this association the evidence is that lower socio economic status (SES) communities have a greater prevalence of children with early literacy difficulties (Boetsch, Green, & Pennington, 1996; Snow & Powell, 2008) such that low SES is a risk factor in terms of children's initial reading development. Associated with this is a growing belief that appropriate early language and learning experiences can act as a protective factor that has a positive influence upon the cognitive and social development of young children to help alleviate low educational achievement (Cashmore, 2001; Elias, Hay, Homel, & Frieberg, 2006; Hawkins & Catalono, 1992; Paul, 2007).

The evidence is that children's oral language competencies underpin children's transition into literacy, which in turn is a major predictor of academic achievement and school attachment (Barrett & Hammond, 2008; Catts & Kamhi, 2005). Oral language competencies, however, are not the only predictors of reading success and it needs to be acknowledged that there are also other influences (Adams, 1990; Byrne, Fielding-Barnsley, & Ashley, 2000; Scarborough, 2005). For example, Scarborough noted the predictive importance of children's: concept of print, expressive vocabulary, sentence/ story recall skills, and receptive and expressive language, along with the students' phonological awareness and letter naming skills, and that these elements are considered interactive, such that an enhancement in one can have a direct and/or indirect influence on another of the elements. While there are a range of interactive influences on children's early literacy development, the focus of this study is on the interactions of children's early expressive and receptive language and their in-class social behaviour.

When children are delayed in language development the indications are that they are more likely to have difficulty settling into school and classroom routines and develop school attachment (Elias et al. 2006; Senechal, 2006). Compared to their peers they are also less likely to form positive peer social interactions involving advanced play and problem solving communication (Fujiki, Brinton, Isaacson, & Summers, 2001; Lindsay, Dockrel, & Strand, 2007). Reciprocally, children's social and interaction problems have a negative influence on the development of children's language by limiting opportunities for dialogue (Hart, Fujiki, Brinton, & Hart, 2004). That is, delays in language hinder children's social interactions and poor social interactions hinder children's language development. From this perspective, the three elements of: (i) children's language proficiency; (ii) children's social skills proficiency; and (iii) children's behaviour control proficiency are considered to be related because they stem from a common underlying cognitive source that manifests all three proficiencies (Goswami & Bryant, 2007).

The speculation is that the core cognitive proficiency of both language and academic delay is the child's working memory along with processing speed and capacity (Goswami & Bryant, 2007). From this perspective, children's attention related behaviours, language, and social development can not be easily separated from their developing cognitive skills to store, organise, and retrieve information into long-term memory (Bishop, 1997; Cole & Cole, 2001; Paul, 2007). The argument is that children with language delays often struggle with peer interactions, attention tasks, and in social dialogue situations because they cannot quickly or efficiently process or attend to all of the linguistic and non-verbal information needed to interact appropriately with teachers, peers, and others (Catts & Kamhi, 2005; Cross, 2004; Snowling, 2005; Nation, 2005).

Some of the most influential support for the argument that there is a relationship between students' language ability and social behaviour has come from the research of Goodyer (2000) who noted that around 50 percent of children with language development difficulties also had a range of associated social problems. Snow and Powell (2008) also noted the negative impact that poor oral language competence had on the social skills of high-risk boys who were identified as juvenile offenders. Similarly, in a fourteen-year follow-up of children with early language delays with a control group of children, a strong association was demonstrated between ongoing language disorders and ongoing social issues (Beitchman et al., 2001). In contrast to this perspective, Qi and Kaiser (2004) have argued that there is still a lack of compelling evidence of the reported relationship between children's language and behaviour for younger children starting schooling. Barrett and Hammond (2008) and Stanton-Chapman et al. (2007) have argued that even for children identified as having a special language impairment these children have no higher levels of externalising or aggressive behaviours than their classroom peers, although the children with significant language impairment did show more passive peer social relationships.

Much of the debate about the relationship between children's language and social proficiency has centred around children from low socio-economic communities (Lindsay et al., 2007; Tomblin, Zhang, Backwalter, &Catts (2000) with the indication that this relationship is more pronounced in these communities (Harden et al., 2000; Randolph et al., 2000), although Fujiki et al. (2001) were unable to identify this relationship with children from low SES communities.

To some extent the debate about the connections between young children's language levels and in-class behaviour can be attributed to the method of measuring the children's behaviour as well as the children's social context (Cross, 2004; Lindsay et al., 2007; Plomin et al., 2002). To clarify this issue, the main research question being investigated in this study is: What is the relationship between children's in-class behaviour and their language level and beginning reading status? This question will be investigated using two studies. Both studies are focussed on young children at the start of their formal schooling experience. In the first study the participating children are from low socio-economic status (SES) communities as identified by Australian Bureau of Statistics (2006). In the second study, the aim was to have a cross-section from low to high SES school communities.

Permission to conduct both research studies was achieved from the relevant University Ethics committee and the school systems involved. Children who were identified as receiving English as a second language school support or who were identified as receiving special education support were not included in either study, as these were considered to be confounding factors to the variables being investigated. The data were collected from urban school communities located in a large metropolitan Queensland city. The different tests used in this research were administered by teachers employed as research assistants and who had been instructed on the administration of the tests.

Study one

At the end of the preschool year (November), 157 preschoolers, mean age 5 years 3 months (SD = 4.03), 51% female, located in four preschools were assessed using three instruments: the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test PPVT-3 (Dunn & Dunn, 1997) to identify receptive vocabulary levels; the Hundred Picture Naming Test (Fisher & Glenister, 1992) to identify expressive vocabulary levels; and The Rowe and Rowe Behavioural Rating Inventory (1997) to ascertain preschoolers' behaviour, using teacher ratings in the domains of antisocial behaviour, poor attention, and restlessness. The Rowe instrument was deliberately selected because the researchers wanted to identify if the children with language difficulties were high on antisocial behaviour as some of the research literature had suggested (i.e., Beitchman et al., 2001).

The findings are outlined in Table 1 and it can be seen that children's in-class attention had a significant correlation with both receptive and expressive language. No significant correlations were demonstrated between children's language performance and teachers' ratings of children's antisocial behaviour or children's levels of restless behaviour. Because this is a correlation study causation is indeterminate, however, the results support the perspective that poor language skills are associated with higher levels of inattention, and the reciprocal relationship, that as the child's level of language improves, the level of poor attention decreases.

Study two

Study two is an extension of the first study, involving children in Year 1, a measure of initial reading, and a different in-class behaviour index. Because of the time span between research studies, no children involved in the first study were included in the second study. In the second study the researchers first identified children with low initial reading development based on the children's ability to identify the 26 letters of the alphabet, the cut off point for poor alphabetical knowledge was less than 17 letters identified out of the 26. This 'screening' procedure was used because this alphabetical task has been identified as being predictive of children's later reading achievement (Adams, 1990; Byrne, Fielding-Barnsley, & Ashley, 2000) and the reported significant correlation between young children's alphabet knowledge and their phonological knowledge (Goswami & Bryant, 1990; Hatcher & Hume, 1999). This screening occurred 2 months into the Year 1 program to give the children an opportunity to settle into school.

The initial participants were 457 children from Year 1 classrooms in nine schools varying in SES in the Brisbane region. Two schools were classified as high SES, five schools as average (middle) SES and two schools as low SES as determined by Australian Government income census data (2006). Two hundred and thirteen (47%) children were female and 244 (53%) were male. Their mean chronological age in years and months at the time of screening was 5 years 9 months (SD = 4.01). From the population of n = 457 a second cohort of 136 children was selected based on the children's poor letter knowledge. These children were then assessed on the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test-Revised (PPVT-R; Dunn & Dunn, 1981) for receptive language and the Hundred Picture Naming Test (HPNT; Fisher & Glennister, 1992) for expressive language. The children's teachers then completed the Strengths and Weaknesses in ADHD and Normal Behaviours (SWAN) questionnaire (Swanson et al., 2005). This questionnaire consists of 18 questions related to children's attention in the classroom as considered by their classroom teacher (see Table 4 for items).

Before looking at the relations between attention and language and initial reading three important findings within the data are worthy of note. The first finding is the positive inter-correlation between children's expressive and receptive language scores and children's alphabetical knowledge (see Table 2). The second finding relates to children's SES school status and the children's language and early reading behaviour. Based on statistical analyses (ANOVAs) children in low SES community schools achieved lower scores for alphabet knowledge and receptive and expressive language ability compared to their aged peers in middle and high SES schools (see Table 3).

The third important finding in the SES data is the estimation of the number of children entering Year 1 with some level of deficit in language using the criteria benchmark point of 5 years 6 months. This benchmark point was selected because it is the minimum age that children have traditionally been allowed to officially enter formal schooling in the State of Queensland, Australia. A language age of 5 years 6 months is also considered to represent a basic competency level required by children to cope with the majority of the Year1 classroom instruction although the researchers acknowledge this is an arbitrary cut off point and Morrow and Tracey (2007) provide a review of the notion of when children are ready for formal instruction. Using the cut off point of a language age of 5 years 6 months for expressive language as assessed by the HPNT, approximate 15% of the children in the sample failed to achieve this criteria, however there was significant variation by school SES. In low SES schools, one in four children (25%) was below the basic language benchmark. This dropped to 1 in 12 children (8%) in middle SES schools, and no children entering the high SES schools were below the benchmark standard of 5 years 6 months.

A similar pattern was also identified for the receptive language data as assessed by the PPVT. In low SES schools, 1 in 3 children (31%) were below the 5 years 6 month expressive language benchmark, this reduced to 1 in 5 children (18%) in middle SES schools, and no children entered the high SES schools below the 5 year 6 month benchmark.

Investigating the relationship between children's in-class behaviour as identified by the SWAN (Swanson et al., 2005) and the children's alphabetical knowledge and their expressive and receptive language ability, the consistent finding is that there is a positive relationship between these variables. That is, children who are more on task, are better at remembering daily tasks, and are more organised (to name just a few of the teacher rating in-class activities) have higher scores for alphabetical knowledge and higher achievement on expressive and receptive language ability tests (see Table 4 for the full list of SWAN items).


The results of this study verify the notion that children's early alphabetical knowledge, their in-class behaviour and their expressive and receptive language are all highly correlated, suggesting what Morrow and Tracey (2007) call a reciprocal relationship between children's spoken and written language. With reference to the relationship between children's language and initial reading development, Gombert (1992) has argued that children's language development directly and indirectly fuels the development of children's phonological and phoneme awareness with Snowling (2005) noting that deficits in phonological awareness usually follow directly as a consequence of slow vocabulary development (a classic marker of language delay). Similarly, Catts, Fey, Tomblin, and Zhang (2002) have argued that the majority of children with language delays suffer a double disorder in reading development, in the sense that the operation of both their reading pathways via phonological (decoding) and semantic (meaning) are compromised.

This research has highlighted that there is significant variability between schools by SES and children's language ability such that most Year 1 children starting school in high SES schools achieved the benchmark criteria of 5 year 6 month language age. In contrast, only 1 in 4 children starting formal schooling in low SES schools achieving this criteria. Such an influence is likely to have a significant impact on how the Year 1 teachers in the different school settings design and implement their literacy program. SES is also likely to have an impact on how the different children from the different communities will achieve on national benchmark tests in later grades. The expectation that all Australian children will achieve the same outcomes on national literacy assessment tests ignores the reality that not all children start the 'school literacy race' at the same point. In literacy education, teaching children is about enhancing and value adding to the child's existing level of literacy skills and abilities.

The teacher rating data of the children's in-class behaviours reported that the children's ability to: remember daily tasks; organise tasks; waits a turn; and engage in tasks that require effort were highly correlated with the children's initial reading achievement. This relationship is not all that unexpected given the theoretical argument that children's attention related behaviours, language, and social development can not be easily separated from their developing and maturing cognitive skills to store, organise, and retrieve information into longterm memory (Bishop, 1997; Cole & Cole, 2001). The finding that children with language delays did not show high levels of anti-social or restless behaviour on the Rowe and Rowe Behavioural Rating Inventory (1997) is consistent with the findings of Stanton-Chapman et al. (2007) and Barrett and Hammond (2008) who have argued that even for children identified as having a special language impairment these children have no higher levels of externalising or aggressive behaviours than their classroom peers.

If children have delays on expressive and receptive language measures it suggests an experience and organisation deficit, and/or a developmental lag (Goswami & Bryant, 2007; Morrow & Tracey, 2007). Either way it indicates a need for the Year 1 teacher to consider modifying the primary school program for this child, or a possible need for further programming by a speech language pathologist to work with the classroom teacher to enhance the child's language development. In particular, the children with language delays need more exposure to, and more practice with, both expressive and receptive areas of language, such as vocabulary development, phonological awareness, syntactic and semantic development, as well as the manipulation of oral and print text information and greater amounts of dialogical interactions (Hay et al., 2007). The implications for teachers are that children who have language delays are also more likely to need more teacher cueing and prompting as they engage in the learning tasks, as well as instructional periods that are shorter in duration, but more frequent, compared with their peers without literacy or language delays (Cook, 2000; Hay & Fielding-Barnsley, 2006). Teachers also need to keep their language of instruction at a suitable level of complexity and clarification to better accommodate the children's speed of oral language processing (Bishop & Leonard, 2000; Nation, 2005) but also give the children opportunities to extend and advance their language development (Blank, 2002; Blank, Rose, & Berlin, 2003).

To help engage children the classroom learning environment needs to be motivating with teachers providing meaningful feedback within a quality early childhood experience. The evidence is that a quality early childhood experience includes oral language experiences that focus on gestural expression, verbal expression, vocabulary development, building background knowledge, and listening to others talk to understand and comprehend what they say (Neuman & Dickson, 2001; Morrow & Tracey, 2007).

This study has not concentrated on children's phonological awareness but it is worth noting that most young children learn phonological awareness, that is that words are made up of individual sounds, as they listen to, attend to, and are engaged in oral language experiences, such as chanting rhymes and poems, signing songs, and clapping sounds they hear in words (Strickland & Schickedanz, 2004). Children with poor listening, attention, and language skills will, however, need more of a differentiated curriculum involving more early oral language, alphabetical, and phonological awareness activities than their peers without attention and language difficulties (Hay et al., 2007; Landry et al., 2006). For some children with more of a specific language or reading impairment, a structured program is required (Barrett & Hammond, 2008; Hatcher & Hume, 1999).

Without appropriate interventions the children with language and attention difficulties have an increased probability of developing a diminished self-esteem, reduced levels of intrinsic motivation, and attribute their academic success or failure to luck (Hay, Ashman, & van Kraayenoord, 1997; 1998). Schools with children with language delays need to encourage a positive interaction between the school and the home and provide parents with relevant information on what can be realistically achieved and the availability of community and school services, such as support teachers, guidance officers, speech and language pathologist, and school and community counselling services.

As part of the process of working with the school and community to enhance children's early literacy, teachers and parents need to be encouraged to select books that provide for the development of children's alphabet knowledge, alliteration (phonemic awareness), and rich vocabulary. Included within the set of books should be alphabet books, which are made up of pages for each capital letter and example words with corresponding pictures. The indications are that alphabetic instruction plays an important role in developing children's phonemic awareness (Fielding-Barnsley & Purdie, 2003; Saada-Robert, 2004). In particular, Murray, Stahl, and Ivey (1996) have noted that children achieved greater gains in decoding and phoneme awareness and alphabet knowledge when they used alphabet books with example words to demonstrate the sounds associated with the letters. This is because alphabet books provide children with the opportunity to link phoneme awareness with alphabet knowledge, because of phonemic information of the first letter's name, such as B for bear, for beach, and for bus. For children with early difficulties in phonemic awareness and sounding out letters there needs to be a greater linkage between writing of words and letters and saying the word. The process of writing alphabet letters, practising inventive spelling, copying and saying words, practices and enhances children's basic decoding and phonemic awareness skills (Richgels, 2001).

Furthermore, one of the main implications for educators from this research is that caregivers in low socio-economic status communities need to be encouraged to use with their children the types of oral language interactions that should help prepare their children for the instructional demands of the classroom. To encourage this process teachers and others can work with parents in low SES communities. This may involve modelling dyadic interactions and this could be practiced with a supportive storybook reading environment. In a dialogic reading situation, parents as caregivers are asked to engage in a dialogue with their child about the content and context of the story and allow the child to direct and share in the conversations associated with the text and the pictures (Elias et al., 2006; Hay & Fielding-Barnsley, 2007; Senechal, 2006). Caregivers are encouraged to expand on children's dialogue, and the evidence is that the child then practises this linguistically enhanced dialogue. Thus, the child improves in vocabulary knowledge, syntactic (the rules/patterns of language) knowledge and semantic (word meaning) knowledge, as well as in the social skills of turn taking, and the conventions associated with reading text (pragmatics). In time, the child is better able to read along with, and direct, the caregiver in re-reading familiar text, but this is secondary to the dyadic interaction. For the child, dialogic reading helps to connect reading with positive social interactions and attention, for the caregiver it facilitates confidence and involvement in the child's reading acquisition process (Bus, van Ijzendoorn, & Pellegrini, 1995; Morgan & Goldstein, 2004).

In conclusion, how to effectively advance the early literacy experiences of children, particularly those from low socio-economic communities, is a challenge and while there are no 'magic' solutions to this challenge, a better understanding of the language and learning profiles of children is a positive initial step. Enhancing children's language development needs to be considered a protective factor for both enhancing children's reading development and children's social development. The findings reported in this study are supportive of the notion that children's oral language competencies underpin children's transition into literacy, and it is argued that successful initial literacy experiences are directly and indirectly linked to students' later school achievement (Barrett & Hammond, 2008; Catts & Kamhi, 2005; Snowling, 2005). Engaging young children so that they can comprehend their teachers' language of instruction, are able to follow classroom directions, and interact with teachers and peers are all important outcomes of an early literacy program, along with enhancing the children's vocabulary, alphabetical, syntactic and semantic knowledge.

While the findings from this research are supportive of the Boetsch et al. (1996) hypothesis that low SES communities have a greater prevalence of children with early literacy difficulties, it needs to be acknowledged that not all children from the low SES communities have these difficulties or that children from higher SES communities are immune from language or reading acquisition problems. There are, however, two critical issues that emerge from this research. First there is a diversity of early literacy children profiles across and within the different schools and therefore there is a need for a variation of teacher led interventions and programs. Second, in general terms teachers, particularly those located in low SES schools need to develop the children's expressive and receptive language skills along with the children's alphabetical, phonological and in-class attention skills, and this process will take time, effort, and resources.


This research was funded from an Australian Research Council Discovery Grant DP0666577 to Prof Ian Hay, Dr Ruth Fielding-Barnsley, and Prof Adrian Ashman. The researchers wish to acknowledge the work and efforts of Therese Taylor and Lisa Bundock Smith with this project.


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Ian Hay


Ruth Fielding-Barnsley

Table 1
Correlation between end of preschool children's in-class behaviour and
their receptive (PPVT) and expressive (HPNT) language scores, n =157

Rowe Behaviour Scores HPNT PPVT

Antisocial .09 0.20

Poor Attention -0.38 * -0.53 **

Restless 0.04 0.13

** Correlation is significant at the 0.01 level (2-tailed)

* Correlation is significant at the 0.05 level (2-tailed)

Table 2
Correlations between beginning Year 1 children's alphabet knowledge
and their receptive and expressive language level

 Alphabet PPVT HPNT

Alphabet 1
PPVT (Receptive Language) .40 ** 1
HPNT (Expressive Language) .58 ** .69 ** 1 **

Correlation is significant at the 0.01 level (2-tailed)

Table 3
Comparison by school SES, Year 1 children's scores for alphabet
knowledge, and receptive and expressive language ability

SES n Mean SD F (df)

 Alphabet Knowledge

low 187 17.05 7.09 70.95 (2,454)
middle 137 23.36 2.52 sig = .000 **
high 133 22.70 4.25

 PPVT (receptive language)

low 81 90.70 14.24 13.19 (2,133)
middle 32 101.59 13.21 sig = .000 **
high 23 103.69 8.34

 HPNT (Expressive language)

low 81 76.17 10.34 9.61 (2,133)
middle 32 84.00 8.17 sig = .000 ***
high 23 82.26 6.99

SES Scheffe Mean Scheffe
 Compjarisons Difference

 Alphabet Knowledge

low low C high 5.58, sig = .000 ***
middle mid C high 0.71, sig = .542
high low C mid 6.29, sig = .000 ***

 PPVT (receptive language)

low low C high 12.99, sig = .000 ***
middle mid C high 2.10, sig = .844
high low C mid 10.89, sig = .000 **

 HPNT (Expressive language)

low low C high 6.08, sig = .025 *
middle mid C high 1.73, sig = .795
high low C mid 7.82, sig = .001 **

*** Difference is statistically significant at the 0.001 level

** Difference is statistically significant at the 0.01 level

* Difference is statistically significant at the 0.05 level

Table 4
Correlation between teachers' ratings of children's in class behaviour
(SWAN), children's alphabet knowledge, and expressive
and receptive language levels

In-Class Behaviour (SWAN) Alphabet PPVT HPNT

Attention to detail .38 ** .34 ** .24 *
Sustained attention .35 ** .27 * .21
Listens when spoken .42 ** .33 ** .34 **
Follows directions .40 ** .39 ** .32 **
Organises tasks .43 ** .36 ** .29 **
Engages in tasks .44 ** .36 ** .38 **
 that require effort
Keeps track of thins .35 ** .34 ** .28 *
Ignores distractions .34 ** .36 ** .31 *
Remembers daily tasks .46 ** .29 ** .24 *
Sits still when required .32 ** .28 ** .25 *
Stays seated .36 ** .33 ** .35 **
Modulates motor .16 .13 .10
Plays quietly .40 ** .28 * .33 **
Settles down .33 ** .28 * .28 *
Controls excessive talk .35 ** .22 .30 **
Reflects on questions .37 ** .38 ** .30 **
 before answering
Awaits turn .42 ** .35 ** .31 **
Enters into conversations .40 ** .46 ** .37 **
 and games without intruding

** Correlation is significant at the 0.01 level (2-tailed)

* Correlation is significant at the 0.05 level (2-tailed)
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Author:Hay, Ian; Fielding-Barnsley, Ruth
Publication:Australian Journal of Language and Literacy
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jun 1, 2009
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