Children from lower-income homes have weaker English oral skills: Study

Children from lower-income homes have weaker English oral skills: Study

Friday, 05 April 2013

Media Type
TODAY (Online)

SINGAPORE — A Government-funded study is underway to determine whether family income affects, among other things, the development of children here during their pre-school years.

And the findings so far indicate that children from lower-income families, indeed, have to play catch up with their peers in terms of oral skills in English.

In response, education experts and pre-school educators suggested that intervention programmes for oral skills should start earlier to help kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. They reiterated the need for greater parental involvement in a child’s learning in lower-income households.

Social mobility and the need to level up pre-school education have come under focus in recent months, amid a national discussion about the education system here.

The study by researchers from the Nanyang Technological University and National Institute of Education (NIE) was presented yesterday at a symposium organised by the NIE.

In September last year, the study tested 166 children between the ages of four and five.

These pre-schoolers studying in childcare centres underwent a series of tests, assessing their oral and cognitive abilities, among other things. Six months later, the researchers assessed 92 of these children again using the same tests.

Funded by the Ministry of Social and Family Development, the study found that children from lower-income families showed less improvement in oral capabilities as compared to kids from other income groups. Nevertheless, in terms of other skills including reading and mathematics, preschoolers from needy homes improved just as much as the rest.

The study, which includes participants from familes earning a range of income, would extend till next year when some of the participants enter Primary One.

Speaking at the symposium, Assistant Professor Qu Li, who is one of the study’s investigators, said: “The childcare centres here have a pretty good curriculum and teaching…so children got a good education in English and Mathematics…family income does not really make a difference as everyone got the same education in school”. But in terms of oral skills, she added that children from needy homes tend to be less vocal. “At home, how parents talk to the (kids), that will improve the (children’s) oral and speech”, said Asst Prof Qu, who is from NTU’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences.

She noted that strong oral skills would eventually lead to children improving, among other things, their grasp of reasoning and comprehension abilities.

Asst Prof Qu suggested more programmes in preschools targetting oral communication which would help kids to perform better in other areas.

Parental involvement in the child’s development should also be further encouraged, she said.

Nevertheless, Asst Prof Qu noted the limitations of the study, including the fact that it only tests the children’s oral skills in English. Also, the findings at the end of the study would be more conclusive, she added.

Currently, the Ministry of Education provides literacy support to 250 pre-school centres for Kindergarten-Two children. The ministry will further implement this programme to 100 more centres over the next few years.

Preschool educators whom TODAY spoke to generally agreed with the preliminary findings.

Early childhood educator Hayati Sulaiman, who teaches children from various family income backgrounds, felt that if children are not exposed to speaking English at home, there would be a “ripple effect” on their confidence and ability to not only express themselves but also, to learn in school.

“Intervention should start earlier, providing help to kids in whichever areas they need, as starting at K2 means there is a lot to catch up on,” she said.

Dr Christine Chen, president for Association for Early Childhood Educators (Singapore), said that in needy families, their children might use a smaller vocabulary and the verbal interaction between parent and child at home might also not be as strong.

This will put the children in a disadvantaged position, she said. “Preschool teachers could be more descriptive when they speak to children (from lower income families) to help them pick up words,” said Dr Chen, “Parents can also create activities to communicate with their child and a build a positive and fun relationship”.


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