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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 18, Number 7, May/June 2006

Kindergarten screening in the Comox Valley
A story of class composition

by Karen Langenmaier

At the Winter Representative Assembly, Jinny Sims told a story to illustrate what teachers mean when we talk about class composition. She spoke of her visit to a Prince Rupert Kindergarten class and estimated the average developmental age of the students to be approximately three years. I have no reason to doubt her, and in fact, the speech language pathologists in the Comox Valley have evidence that supports the declining language skills of children entering Kindergarten.

In 1987, the district started a Speech and Language Screening Program for every Kindergarten student entering school. The locally developed informal assessment tool took into account: general knowledge, receptive language, expressive language, phonemic awareness, and phonological skills. Recently we have added questions relative to preschool experience and "screen time" activities.

Initially, the screening tool was an efficient way to determine caseload priorities from a district perspective and deploy services. Over the years however, a trend in the screening results showed a steady decline in readiness skills.

We discovered that fewer children could rhyme, they lacked vocabulary, they had severe phonological disabilities, the language required to describe or sequence stories was disorganized, and children had limited social pragmatics or communication skills. In 1999, 11% to 23% of the students fell into the moderate-to-severe category. In 2005, depending on the school, 20 to 59% were in this category. Overall, 33% of students entering Kindergarten this year fell into the moderate to severe range of speech and language delay or disability. These statistics do not include children in the low-incidence categories. This is a one-time snapshot of speech and language skills and there are many variables for which we cannot account. However, the informal screening tool has remained relatively unchanged, as has the speech and language pathology staff administering the screener. As unscientific as these results may be, our observations show a steady decline of readiness skills.

This is an actual transcription of a child’s language sample that we would consider to be in the moderate/severe category:

Question: What did you have for breakfast?
Response: My wed,... my fud,... weddy yite,... my fuddow yite oyo
Interpretation: My Fred,... my broth,... Freddy likes,... my brother likes cereal.
Recue: Freddy likes cereal. What did YOU have for breakfast?
Response: My not yite oyo.
Interpretation: I don’t like cereal.

This student not only has obvious phonological errors but also receptive language limitations as shown by answering the question on topic (breakfast) but not the specific question (what did you have). She also showed expressive language difficulties as shown by her dysfluency and errors in syntax and grammatical structures. These delayed phonological and language skills will impact the normal acquisition of literacy skills and the student would be at significant risk in her learning potential.

We have many theories as to why the language and readiness skills are declining, but the point is that teachers are having to teach readiness skills before they can even move into the Kindergarten curriculum. There is a domino effect and if children don’t receive the support they need to catch up, it is up to the Grade 1 teacher to continue to teach these skills and so on up the grades.

Children with these specific learning disabilities need support from specialists so that their needs are addressed and they can have a fighting chance to succeed. Without adequate support, they become another statistics. As it stands now, these children will be replaced with another group next year, the speech and language pathologist will have to move on, and the learning deficits continue.

It is the classroom teacher who is left with the students who did not have their needs met. And ultimately, it is the student who suffers. Jinny Sims was absolutely right in her assessment of the children’s developmental ages. When you have children with phonological and language skills of three-year-olds, four-year-olds, five-year-olds, and the occasional six-, seven-, or eight-year-old in one Kindergarten class, that’s an example of problem class composition.

Karen Langenmaier is a speech and language pathologist in the Comox Valley School District.

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