literacy · Shep Barbash · Sig Engelmann · Sir Michael Marmot

Poor children lagging behind ‘on a grand scale’!

Figures released by Professor Sir Michael Marmot, Director of University College London, Institute of Health Equity, on Wednesday in the Telegraph revealed that four out of ten children are failing to reach the basic skills level expected of a five-year-old.

As reported, Sir Michael pointed out that ‘Britain lags behind other countries including Poland, Hungary, Denmark and Finland, in the gap between the children who do best and those who do worst’.
The criteria for deciding if children have a good level of development are that children are able to dress themselves, count to ten, read simple sentences, know some of the alphabet, and can take turns in holding a conversation. Staggeringly, forty-one percent of children are, according to Sir Michael, ‘thought not to have a good level of child development’ and are failing to meet these goals.
He is clearly rather angry about these disgraceful statistics because the children most affected are from poorer areas of the country. One example he gives is that of Blackpool, where only half of five year olds had achieved ‘good’ development in 2011, a figure that has not changed since 2010.
Sir Michael insists that poor children are being ‘failed on a grand scale’, caused by low levels of literacy and other inequalities. And these, as he rightly points out, have consequences for individuals’ long term health and for the economy. His remarks included a withering criticism of the government’s lack of support for Sure Start children’s centres, a scheme David Cameron promised to support.
The problem, though, with schemes like this is that there is precious little evidence both here and in the United States that they make anything more than a marginal difference and even that difference seems to evaporate within a few years. In principle, they are an excellent idea; however, much depends on what they are doing. If the Sure Start centres are not closing the language gap between poor children and the children of the better off, questions need to be raised about the pedagogy. Perhaps they need to be adopting the kinds of Direct Instructional approaches and practices advocated by Sig Engelmann and Shep Barbash.
Thanks to Palisadesk for drawing my attention to Barbash’s article ‘Pre-K Can Work’, which you can read here.

2 thoughts on “Poor children lagging behind ‘on a grand scale’!

  1. A booklet of practical language development activities (designed for preschool children, but also appropriate for older children with language delays) by Engelmann and Bereiter can be downloaded here. The booklet is summarized in an abstract from the ERIC dtabase thus:
    This booklet describes several gamelike activities which are designed to facilitate language learning among disadvantaged children. The introductory discussion emphasizes (1) the important role of language in cognitive development and (2) the need for a structured program of language learning activities for young children. Fourteen activities (for example, the fooler game, the preposition game, and the question-asking game) are described. The activities focus on the most crucial language deficits of disadvantaged children, and each of them is designed to elicit maximum student participation in the learning process. Explicit directions for using the activities are provided, and large amounts of sample dialog are included. The concluding section of the booklet consists of six methodological suggestions which are applicable to all of the described activities

    I found it very useful with a language- delayed group of 6-year-olds.

    This article by Jean Osborn, who also worked in the Bereiter-Engelmann preschool project, is also of value:
    Teaching Language to Disadvantaged Children

    For those with an in-depth interest in preschool preparation of disadvantaged students, Engelmann and Bereiter's book Teaching Disadvantaged Children in the Preschool can't be recommended too highly. It goes into their experiences and how they learned what worked (or didn't) in some detail, including teaching of mathematics concepts, art and music. You can obtain this book cheaply on many used-book sites.

  2. We are, knock on wood, having much better success with our children from low-income homes than either the UK or the U.S. My own K-8 school, in a low-income area, consistently outperforms some of the wealthier, middle-class suburban schools and the lily-white rural affluent areas. A district-wide research study found that a number of low-income schools were surpassing middle and working-class schools in achievement on a regular basis.

    We have had 2 years of Kindergarten for some time, and now have extended this from a half-day to a full-day program in many schools, with an emphasis on oral language development and foundation skills but without the academic emphasis found in the UK or in U.S. Kindergartens.

    Counterintuitively, our students catch up and surpass their U.S. and UK peers (as a cohort) by the end of Grade 2 if not before, despite a later start, and the major norm-referenced achievement tests (WRAT, WIAT, Key Math, WFUS, Woodcock Johnson, etc.) all have been or are in the process of being re-normed for Canadian use because our students score so much higher than their age-peers in the U.S., by about half a SD according to one of our psychologists who is working on the renorming project.

    One promising program we have been using for several years with excellent results is this one:
    From 3 To 3 which has shown measureable improvement to students' reading, writing and comprehension across subjects. It is entirely an oral program at the early stages, with much recitation of poetry and listening to (and retelling) quality narrative from a spectrum of children's literature.

    Here's a news article about it featuring some of my schools:
    Telling Tales Improves Children's Language Skills

    We have started some small-group interventions with children whose oral language is weak, using Engelmann-style activities and some of his program materials, as well.

    Other factors that have made a significant difference to the achievement of poor students has been the extensive and persistent emphasis on teachers changing their practice to those shown to be effective according to researchers such as John Hattie and Robert Marzano. Naturally there was some resistance at first but over time I have seen a dramatic turnaround even in some schools that earlier could only have been described as abysmal.

    This is always a work in progress however. Every year, a new cohort of students enters school and we must redouble our efforts to promote their achievement and competence so that they can overcome the barriers they face.

    We find that a significant percentage of our students entering school at ages 3.8-5 years show all the skills and language deficits described in the Telegraph article, but we are having some success closing the gap.

    Andreas Schleicher was on a CBC radio program about a week ago discussing the factors that made Ontario in particular, and Canada in general, more successful in promoting social mobility and equalizing outcomes for immigrants vis-à-vis native-born children. I'll see if I can find the link, as his remarks were both informed and illuminating.

    No question but that there is more work to be done but substantive progress continues to be made.

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