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There are many theories about how language is developed; some theorists believe it's innate while others believe it's a learned skill. This could be true of all areas of child development but the thinking today is that although development is obviously influenced by inherited genes, individuals are also affected by environmental factors and personal experiences. Professionals today believe in a more holistic approach to child development, believing that the whole child's well being is as important to their development as their innate abilities.
"Every child is unique but at the same time forms identity, meaning and purpose through relationships with family, community, culture and public policies. A child does not experience the world in isolation but develops within the whole society and find identity within society."
Wagner, K 2009: p 9
Behaviourist B.F. Skinner's theory states that children learn through "operant conditioning," this is a process where children learn by repetition, reinforcement and rewards. This is seen very clearly in young babies whose parents "reward" their early sounds with lots of smiles and encouragement and replacing the babble with their own interpretation, e.g. da, da, da to dad. This continues throughout childhood as children build on their language skills and can be seen in many schools in the form of children learning their initial phonic sounds and blends, onto reading simple and then more complex words and in speech therapy for children who find expressive language more difficult. The use of sign language or other forms of non-verbal communication (NVC) is also encouraged and reinforced enabling the children to learn the correct way of getting their meaning across.
Another prominent theorist on language development is Albert Bandura. His is a theory based on social learning where children watch and listen to those around them; in turn they learn to imitate what they have seen and heard and build up their own language skills including use of grammar and vocabulary. In some ways this is similar to parts of Skinner's operant conditioning as it is reliant on input from others. An example of this that I have observed is that of a Down syndrome child starting school with virtually no speech but the use of signing for communication. The whole school was encouraged to learn simple signs to enable them to communicate with this child; they were also asked to speak while using signing to connect the sign with its word - assisted signing. Consequently the child in question now imitates what the other children are doing and saying to him. Obviously this is not just because he imitates the other children as he has a great deal of daily intervention but I believe that it has an impact on his speech and language development.
A third theory is that of "nativism," this bases its ideas on biological pre-programming, believing that language is innate, that we are all born with a basic understanding of how language works and the capacity to communicate.
Noam Chomsky believed that we are all born with a "language acquisition device" which is trigged on hearing the spoken language.
While I have no problem in believing that part of our language acquisition is innate I do believe that environmental and social issues still play a huge part in how potential is accessed.
"Parents who report regularly undertaking activities that engage and stretch a child's mind contribute markedly positive effects to their child's development. Their children are already ahead in both social and intellectual development at the age of three - showing advanced language ability, higher levels of confidence, cooperation and sociability as well as having greater discrimination and spatial skills.
The advantage continues as these children progress through school. They continue to perform well on language and discrimination tasks and show greater awareness of rhyme and alliteration, written symbols and early number concepts."
(Connor & Wheeler 2009: p.37)
This was from a recent journal where Joyce Connor and Helen Wheeler comment on how parents can aid their children's development before they even start school. They based their findings on The Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) study that was undertaken to investigate the effects of a child's home background and pre-school education up to 7 years of age. A major finding from this study was that the child's improved skills were not dependant on the family circumstances, parental education, occupations or incomes.
"What parents do with their children is more important than who parents are. Poor mothers with few qualifications can improve their children's progress and give them a better start at school by engaging in activities at home that engage and stretch the child's mind."
EPPE, Early Years to End of Key Stage One (2004)
This view that parents greatly aid their child's development is supported by Bruner's theory of interaction. Interactionist theories acknowledge the important role that parents or carers have when interacting with their developing child. Bruner's theory acknowledges that this interaction where speech is directed and modified by the adult to enable the child to understand, known as the "Language Acquisition Support System," assists children in their knowledge as they begin to connect words with objects, building associations and consequently their language skills.
"Scaffolding" may then used to build on the child's secure knowledge.
This concept is not only used by parents but by teachers and teaching assistants (TA's) alike while supporting many children in all aspects of development in school.
"Bruner developed the concept of scaffolding to explain how adults could use their greater experience appropriately to help children understand and think."
(Lindon 2009: p.41)
As teacher's or TA's we are used to supporting children with their learning, the most difficult part is knowing when to remove the support to let the child try out their new skill, to make and rectify mistakes and to enhance their own confidence. Children are very good at letting adults, (and other children), do tasks for them, but with the right amount of support and encouragement children will start to believe in themselves and want to try things for themselves, knowing that they can always ask for help if they really need it.
In addition to this "scaffolding" is Bruner's "spiral curriculum" where children revisit activities and repeat skills they have previously learnt, this enables them to repeat and to build on these skills as their cognitive ability progresses. When thinking about language this is seen as children build on their phonics to produce simple, then more complex words and then on to sentence building using grammar, semantics, syntax and pragmatics correctly. Doherty and Hughes (2009: p. 273) state that the notion of the spiral curriculum "is very evident in the construction of curriculum frameworks in UK primary schools where concepts are introduced early on, and then revisited throughout schooling." This is a prime example of how theory is put into practice in our education system today.
Much of Bruner's work was influenced and then further developed from the work of Lev Vygotsky, a social constructivist, who believed that children learn from the society in which they live, from the influence of things around them and from the input and support from other children and adults.
"Increases in language capability change thinking. Language allows children to organise how they behave and to reflex on this. Vygotsky argued that when very young children interact with others they become more knowledgeable and this enables them to identify what tasks are accepted as culturally important."
(Doherty & Hughes 2009: p. 268)Vygotsky believed that each child develops through their own experiences and at their own pace, but with the help and support of other children or adults they could achieve a great deal more. This extra development is called the "zone of proximal development" (ZPD).
When looking at influences on child development it's important to look at Bronfenbrenner who took the approach of looking at all the different aspects that affect a child. In his model the child is at the centre, with their immediate family or carers around them; the micro-system. Influences here may include birth order, economic resources, health, role models and parent's education or their attitude towards education. The next layer in this model is the exo-system which consists of the community, peers, school, church, local facilities, cultural issues and experiences. The macro-system is the final layer and is society in general, the Government and law and the media including television and computers. The closer the layer to the centre, the child, the greater the effect that influence or person will have, e.g. teachers are in the exo-system and should, therefore have more effect on the child than society in general as this is in the outer macro-system layer.
"Nearly a quarter of boys - and one in seven girls - are struggling to learn to talk because thousands of households keep their TV sets on, constantly making it difficult for them to understand the speech of adults around them. A survey revealed how 22 per cent of boys and 13 per cent of girls have trouble developing speech and understanding."
Mail Online (2010)The basis of this theory really does take the holistic approach as the child is at the centre with all the influences and experiences set around them. I think that this is a great way of looking at overall child development including some aspects of language development, although it probably has more of an effect on social and emotional development. I think it's also important to note here the increasing effect of technology on children today and the possibility that family relationships are often compromised by television, mobile phones, computers and the internet. All this could be contributing to language difficulties in some children due to lack of family meal times and the conversations that could be taking place, constant background noise from televisions and computer games and the use of "text speak" commonly used by the younger generation. Another contributing factor could be that in our society today many more families have both parents working which could, in turn reduce the contact time children and parents spend together constructively communicating.
Bernstein's theory states that children use different codes of speech depending on who they are communicating with, they adapt their speech to fit in with the social group or setting around them. The "elaborated code" uses language that is detailed and could generally be understood by anyone. This code is normally used by children or young people in more formal social settings like school or work and it's the accepted form of communication with adults. On the other hand, the "restricted code" is used when communicating with friends, peers or a social "gang." The language used is specific to that group and would be difficult for an outsider to understand without prior knowledge of the code. The restricted code uses shared understanding and creates a feeling of belonging to a group or family. Neither code is thought to be "better" but the most successful communicators are thought to be those that can move between the codes most efficiently, opening them to a wider range of influences. Many young vulnerable children, especially boys, have been caught up in "gang cultures" where the sense of belonging entices them away from mainstream society. They are consequently more likely to just use the restricted code of their gang and in extreme cases disregard society as a whole allowing their gang to become their family.
"Young teenagers join gangs, they explained, because they are afraid. There is nobody else to protect them, certainly no responsible adult. All three emphasised the importance of co-operation."
It's important that all adults caring for children are aware of issues that may be prominent in a child's life and that strategies and support networks are put in place before children resort to extremes as detailed above.
"In addressing SLCN, there is strong clinical opinion about the value of early intervention and the danger of its absence. If a child receives the right help early on, he or she has a better chance of tackling problems, communicating well and making progress. If a child does not benefit from early intervention, there are multiple risks - of lower educational attainment, of behavioural problems, of emotional and psychological difficulties, of poorer employment prospects, challenges to mental health and, in some cases, of a descent into criminality."
Bercow report 2008There is a wealth of experience from within schools plus from external sources provided by the numerous outside agencies that work closely with both schools and the parents. In addition to this we are guided by school policies and Government initiatives that direct the way in which we deal with issues arising with children. Many of the strategies and initiatives we find in school today are loosely based on some of the theories discussed earlier. A good example of this is "Every Child Matters" which requires the five outcomes for all children; be healthy, stay safe, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution and to achieve economic well being. This policy strives to support parents and carers as they have the greatest influence on their children and it also hopes to improve on staff training and early interventions to ensure the children receive the best help available at the earliest opportunity. The Bercow report (2008) identified the need for early identification and interventions for children with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN).
In addition to this was another initiative known as the Inclusion Development Programme (IDP) which in 2008 focused on dyslexia and SLCN. Its primary aim was to support schools in their inclusion of this group of children and to increase teachers' knowledge and confidence when dealing with children with these additional needs.
There are many different theories on language development and child development as a whole; so how do we, as parents, teachers and TA's know which theories to accept and try to include in our every day practices and which do we leave out? I believe that all of the theorists make very valid points in their evaluation of their own theories but in the practical world we understand that they are just theories and not a set of rules that have to be followed. We can be guided by a particular theorist but in real terms we have to adapt that theory into working practice and we have to make decisions on how we can work in the best interests of the children we support. School policies and Government initiatives are written to help guide us and provide us with the frameworks in which to work enabling us to support the wide development ranges of the children in our care and to give them the strategies and tools to attain their potential.