Research Snapshot: Using the AEDC to monitor oral communication skills in Australian school entrants

Research Snapshot: Using the AEDC to monitor oral communication skills in Australian school entrants

Background

Oral language skills refer to the ability to communicate effectively with other people, including the ability to both talk to and understand others. Almost all learning activities at school involve oral language skills,including literacy learning and getting along with others. Early oral language difficulties are associated with problems in a range of developmental domains, including academic achievement and social-emotional wellbeing. In Australia, parents and/or teachers are concerned about the language development of around one in every four school children. Some children are more at risk of starting school with poorer oral language skills than their peers, including children with speech-language disorders, and those who have had less exposure to language rich environments at home and in the community before starting school. Currently, one-on-one speech-language services are unable to meet this high demand for support. Other approaches, such as helping schools to better support all children’s oral language skills from school entry, are needed to reduce the number of children experiencing difficulty. To develop such approaches, data about the oral language skills of children in Australian schools is important to:• understand the full extent of oral language difficulties in Australian children, • identify communities where support is needed most, and • inform the development of school-based interventions and evaluate their success over time. In the Australian Early Development Census (AEDC), teachers are asked to rate each child’s ability to use language effectively in English. This “oral communication in the classroom” (OCC) indicator provides a potential opportunity to obtain population-level data about the oral language skills of Australian children. However, first it’s important to ensure that the OCC indicator provides a sound measure of oral language skills in children.

Aim

This study aimed to examine whether the OCC indicator in the AEDC is a sound measure that appropriately captures the oral language skills of the Australian school entrant population. Study detailsThis study draws on data from two sources. The first is the 2012 national Australian Early Development Census (www.aedc.gov.au). During the period from 1 May until 31 July 2012, school teachers across Australia reported on the health and development of all children in their first year of formal full-time schooling. The AEDC measures five important domains of early childhood development: physical health and wellbeing; social competence; emotional maturity; language and cognitive skills (school-based); and communication skills and general knowledge.The second data source is the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC), which is a nationally representative sample of two cohorts of Australian children. LSAC commenced in May 2004. Data were analysed from a sub-sample of 720 children from the LSAC Kindergarten cohort whose teachers also completed the Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) in 2004. This dataset included a number of valid language measures against which teacher OCC ratings could be compared.

Key findings

Overall, the findings show that most children are rated by their teachers as having “good” OCC (see Figure 1). 

Pie chart showing proportion of children rated by their teacher as having good, average and poor OCC. 68 per cent is good, 25 per cent is average and 7 per cent is poor.

There are some subpopulations of children who we expect to start school with poorer OCC skills than their peers, for example; 

  • children with diagnosed speech or language impairments,
  • children from homes where English is a second language (ESL), and/or
  • children who didn’t attend preschool.

If the OCC indicator is a sound indicator, we would expect differences across these groups. From the analyses these subpopulations of children were indeed more likely to be rated by their teachers as having “poor” or “average” OCC compared to their peers (see Figure 2). 

Bar chart showing poor OCC and Average OCC at school entry across at risk groups. Percentage of children with speech impairment, ESL status and preschool.

If the OCC indicator is capturing children’s language skills well, it should also show similar results to children’s scores on other well-established language measures. Children who scored more poorly on other language measures, were indeed more likely to be rated as having “poor” or “average” OCC. These findings suggest the OCC indicator seems effective in measuring differences in oral language skills. However, it could be that the indicator is picking up any general developmental problems, rather than OCC specifically. This did not seem to be the case: teachers OCC ratings were not associated with parent-reported concerns about their child’s physical health, so it appears OCC ratings are reflecting language skills specifically, rather than more general developmental concerns. 

Implications

The findings support the use of the OCC indicator in research as a measure of children’s early oral language skills. As a population tool, the OCC indicator is useful for understanding the oral language skills of groups of children, such as children living in particular communities or specific subpopulation groups (e.g. ESL children). Because it is not a diagnostic tool, the OCC indicator is not suitable for identifying or diagnosing individual children with speech-language difficulties.Children’s language skills may differ across their different environments (e.g. at home versus school). Teacher’s OCC ratings are based on their knowledge of how well children are communicating at school specifically. Therefore, OCC data is particularly useful for investigating factors that influence school-based oral language skills, and the impact of early oral language difficulties on school functioning.The OCC indicator may provide important data for understanding the extent of early oral language difficulties in communities and in schools. This may help inform policy thinking about the best way to support oral language development in the early years. Currently it is not known how sensitive the OCC is to measuring changes over time. As the AEDC is completed every three years, it may be possible to compare OCC data across AEDC cohorts to evaluate the effectiveness of policy or service changes related to early oral language promotion in schools.

For further details

Details of the research paperGray, S., Kvalsvig, A., O’Connor, M., O’Connor, E., Incledon, E., Tarasuik, J. & Goldfeld, S. (2017). Can a teacher-reported indicator be used for population monitoring of oral language skills at school entry? International Journal of Speech-Language Pathology. Can a teacher-reported indicator be used for population monitoring of oral language skills at school entry? A full list of references used in the development of this snapshot is available online link.

About research snapshots

Research Snapshots provide a brief and accessible overview of research being undertaken in relation to the AEDC. This project was funded by the Australian Government under the AEDC program. For further information and resources consult the AEDC website:www.aedc.gov.au.

About the organisation

The Centre for Community Child Health (CCCH) has been at the forefront of Australian research into early childhood and behaviour for over two decades. The CCCH conducts research into many conditions and common problems faced by children that are either preventable or can be improved if recognised and managed early. By working collaboratively with leaders in policy, research, education and service delivery, the Centre aims to influence early childhood policy and improve the capacity of communities to meet the needs of children and their families. CCCH is a department of The Royal Children’s Hospital and a research group of the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute: www.rch.org.au/ccch.​