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Dire need for research to improve child literacy

It is no secret that language development is a critical part of a child's overall development. Sadly, the lack of this development and the terrible effects this may have on one's life are often overlooked.

Prof Leenta Grobler, leader of the Medical Device Development Group at the North-West University's (NWU's) Faculty of Engineering, and a team of experts have made it their mission to delve deeper into research that may just equip parents and caregivers with the right tools to raise children into adults who can perform to the unreserved best of their abilities.

Prof Grobler says increasing evidence from the fields of neuroscience, psychology and communication pathology reveals that self-regulation, communication-interaction and executive function are critical capabilities adults need to be resilient, perform and contribute optimally to economic vitality. Science is explicitly directing the world's attention to the crucial period up to three years of age as the foundation for these adult capabilities.

"Early communication-interaction between a child and a caregiving adult is critical to the child's development, health and future academic performance. A rich language environment and the amount of turn-taking in conversation with children emerged as the best predictors of health, executive function, self-regulation and scholastic skills development. The early conversations parents and caregivers have with young children are widely recognised as the scale-tipping factor in getting the best developmental outcomes, even in the face of adversity and the stresses of poverty," she says.

Hanlie Degenaar, a speech-language therapist from the NWU with a special interest in early communication intervention, says the language environment in which a child is submerged is the determining factor for optimal language and literacy development.

"The language environment refers not only to the number of words and sentences the child hears; it also includes the non-verbal language such as tone of voice, speech rate and prosody. It is imperative for the adult to treat the child as a true conversational partner. Therefore, by teaching parents, caregivers and early childhood educators both how and why to have conversations with a child, they can set children on a pathway towards literacy, educational success and well-being," says Degenaar.

The most rapid period of brain growth and the highest plasticity occur in the first two to three years of life. During this period, rapid rates of brain cell growth, differentiation, myelination and connectivity take place. A child's brain can form up to 1 000 neural connections every second. It is therefore obvious that these connections are the foundation of the child's future.

According to research, neural connections shape the brain structures and pathways and stabilise by age three, resulting in emotional and cognitive schemas that become the way the child responds to the world.

"Therefore, it is clear that the early years of a child's life should include a high number of quality conversations to utilise the excellent window of opportunity provided by early brain development," adds Degenaar.

The global Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), which assesses children's reading comprehension, has placed South African children last in 50 countries. The study concluded that 78% of Grade 4 learners in South Africa cannot read for comprehension in any national language. Functional illiteracy is associated with risky behaviour, poor health, receiving welfare assistance, unemployment, violence, crime and incarceration.

The results of the study point to eight out of every 10 nine-year-olds in South Africa currently being functionally illiterate. This number implies that the next generation will enter the workforce without the very basic skills needed to raise themselves out of poverty. It means a generation without the capacity to learn, to teach, to thrive and to contribute meaningfully to the country. Alarmingly, it shapes a generation unable to pass along literacy to the generations to come.

The team's research initiative identified the need to develop an early childhood communication-interaction evaluation system. This will entail measuring a variety of factors to evaluate the quantity and quality of daily conversations between a child and parent or caregiver.

The proposed study is currently in the process of applying for funding in order to obtain the necessary resources and tools.

As one of the outcomes, the study plans to develop a platform that will empower and educate healthcare providers, parents and caregivers to reflect on their existing communication-interaction habits and the effects of those habits. It will also assist in planning appropriate communication-interaction interventions.

The current research team consists of Prof Grobler, principal investigator and responsible for software development, Dr Henri-Jean Marais, responsible for electronic development, and Degenaar, an expert in childhood communication-interaction in the Centre for Health and Human Performance.