The language scripts of pre-school children and of the language intervention volunteer : mismatched discourses?

Southwood, Frenette ; D'Oliveira, Eden (2016)

CITATION: Southwood, F. & D'Oliveira, E. 2016. The language scripts of pre-school children and of the language intervention volunteer : mismatched discourses?. Stellenbosch Papers in Linguistics Plus, 249-263, doi:10.5842/49-0-659.

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Children with low socioeconomic status (SES) often enter school with poor language skills (Raizada, Richards, Meltzoff and Kuhl 2008), and fall further behind their middle-class peers with every passing grade (cf. Cunningham and Stanovich 1997). This frequently results in academic failure and premature school exit (Astone and McLanahan 1991; Catts, Fey, Tomblin and Zhang 2002), which perpetuates the cycle of limited life chances. Early intervention is often recommended for these children in an attempt to render them less vulnerable to such academic failure. This study considers the practice of such early language intervention. It reflects on the lessons learnt from a language stimulation programme implemented by a dedicated volunteer in a childcare centre in an isolated farming valley in the Stellenbosch area. Some children attending this centre received deliberate language stimulation in a small-group setting on a weekly basis for 18 weeks spread over 6 months. Formal pre- and post-intervention language test scores indicated limited gains for this group, with no statistically significant differences (i) between the group’s pre- and post-stimulation scores or (ii) between those children who received the language stimulation and those who did not. Although other, difficult-to-measure gains could be observed (such as increased confidence in interaction with the volunteer, better class participation, and increased positive risk-taking), the stimulation programme failed to yield statistically significant improvement in language skills. The question arises as to why this is the case: Would the children have shown significant improvement over a longer period of time? Is the formal language test inappropriate for use with these children? Or should the practice of a middle-class volunteer entering these children’s low-SES world be reconsidered? The paper considers the apparent failure of early language intervention to achieve its goal, namely to give linguistically under-prepared children a fair chance at participating in classroom discourse.

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