UC Science Radio: Season 2 Episode 12 transcript

Catherine Sivertsen: Developing language for learning

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Molly Magid: Welcome to UC Science Radio, where we interview a range of postgrad students to tune into the fresh voices entering the world of science and learn what sparked their passion. I’m Molly Magid, a master’s student in the School of Biological Sciences.

Today I’m talking with Catherine Sivertsen, a master’s student studying speech and language science. She also works as a Speech and Language Therapist, supporting children to develop speech and language. She is passionate about improving child language development as a prerequisite to literacy.

Kia ora Catherine, welcome to UC Science Radio.

Catherine Sivertsen: Kia ora, thank you for having me! It's nice to be here.

So you are studying speech and language science, but specifically what is your research about?

CS: So I'm studying the science of child language development, a huge field. And child language science also covers linguistics and education and psychology and neuroscience. So it's a really dynamic field to be working in. I've tried to narrow down that vast topic into something a little bit more tangible, and so I'm specifically looking at what are some of the variables that impact on child language development, and particularly within a New Zealand context, to give us some up-to-date and relevant research for our own country. And one of the variables that we know from overseas literature that can impact on child language development is the knowledge and the beliefs of the early childhood educators, of the kindergarten teachers, and what they do has been proven to have a positive influence on children's language development. So that's breaking it down a bit further from that vast topic that we started with.

And so my research is looking at kindergarten teachers in New Zealand and what are their beliefs about language development and what are their practices? What do they say that they do? And what's their knowledge. So yeah we've put it around New Zealand and we have about a hundred and fifty kindergarten teachers from across the country who have completed the survey.

You're probably still analysing your data, but are there any findings so far that you can say about that sample of teachers you were able to survey?

CS: Yes, so you're right, I'm still at the analytical stage. However, there are some trends that have come from the data. And overall, it's quite a positive picture. Overall, kindergarten teachers are doing really great things and they have quite high levels of group agreement. There are a few things that they are still unsure of. And one that stands out is—so one of the questions in the beliefs question said: “How many words a child knows when they start school can predict how well they do at year four at school." Teachers then had to rate then whether they agreed with this a little bit or a lot on a five-point scale. And so lots of teachers didn't actually know the answer to that, that how many words a child has when they start school is actually directly related to how they might do at school four years later. Likewise, a similar question was about how many words a three-year-old has can predict how well a child will do when they start school. And again, teachers just didn't know that there's such a strong language trajectory for learning vocabulary and learning words early.

So that's something that's been really interesting to discover, and that certainly gives speech and language therapists lots of scope to move forward and when we're talking with kindergarten teachers, to really let them know the evidence base that yeah the number of words that at child has when they're three or when they're five can definitely have a positive or a negative impact on how well they do at school.

It makes me wonder as well, sort of related to this, helping children to develop speech and language will help with being a prerequisite to literacy, can you talk a bit about that?

CS: Absolutely, so the best way to think of language is that it's a really cognitive process and it requires so many incredible skills, and again there's a whole science of learning to read. But one of those skills is you need to understand the words and the world around you. So it's very hard to read a book about the beach, for example, if you have never been to the beach. So not only as a five-year-old, you have to learn those decoding skills about what is the "b" and the "ea," and then the "ch" at the end, the word beach. But the other part is that you have to know what the beach is, you have to have a mental picture in your brain about what a beach is, and so vocabulary is obviously a huge, huge part or huge concept for learning to read. The words that we have, the words that we know, are we talking about things in the present tense, are we talking about things in the past? All those tricky things, such as, we have one foot, but two feet, and all those grammatical structures, that all comes under language. And so children need all this beautiful wealth of language as a foundation for them in order to be able to go and learn to read, and to read well.

You were talking about the New Zealand context of this work? How did that come into play in your research?

CS: Yeah, great question. You know, New Zealand has such an amazing context of we are a bicultural nation, we have a bicultural framework. But we're also a multicultural nation, at the same time. And so we have so many different voices, and they're all so valuable, and I guess, traditionally, if you look at the Western lens of research, it has just taken one focus, and that tends to be the predominant Western lens. Whereas in New Zealand, we're so fortunate that we have a much wider perspective. And originally, actually one of my research questions was to analyse the data by culture and to see whether different ethnicities of teachers, particularly those kind of big four ethnicities in New Zealand of Asian, Pacifica, obviously Māori, and New Zealand European. Whether there would be any differences in what they thought, or believed, or did, but unfortunately I have not collected enough differing ethnicities to be able to adequately analyse that data, so that's future projection. So yeah, New Zealand is just this amazingly unique place, and I thought it would just be so important for us to be able to ground it in our own workings and what we do here.

So, I'm curious, what was your path to doing this research, because I know you've worked as a practicing speech and language therapist. What led you to do this masters?

CS: Well it was actually a big decision because, you know, once you've been working for twenty years, university and academic life is very far behind in the shadows, so I didn't undertake it lightly. But I noticed, I was working in the early-childhood sector, and I noticed every time I went to a kindergarten, teachers were really keen to find out: "Oh, what can we do? What else can we do? Where can we go for information?" They were really noticing, and you know, credit to kindergarten teachers here, they were noticing that the children that were coming through their doors, more and more children were presenting with limited vocabulary, limited speech sounds.

There are numerous examples, but just one off the top of my head that I can think of a three-year-old that came back after the summer holiday break and he was trying to talk to me to say that his sweatshirt was wet, he'd obviously been playing in the water, but he didn't know the word for "wet." And I was so shocked and so were the teachers that obviously over the entire summer holiday break, when he'd been at home, he was dry. You know, it was the summer here, he hadn't played in a puddle, he hadn't gotten the hose out in the back garden, he hadn't splashed around in the sink. I mean, forget about hygiene and showering, he obviously hadn't been to the beach, hadn't been to the swimming pool. For a three-year-old to have a whole summer and come back to kindergarten and not know the word "wet," was quite confronting, really.

And so I guess the teachers were seeing more and more children like this who were coming into kindergarten with just not the words behind them, not the vocabulary, and not the understanding of communication. So, that was really the motivating factor. I just noticed that there was this growing need in the early-childhood sector for more information, and particularly for New Zealand information. Teachers wanted to know what else can they be doing, and so I did a quick Google search myself and thought: "ah, I think there's a bit of a gap in the knowledge base here, I wonder if I could find out some more." And so, followed on from that, I emailed University of Canterbury and the College of Science and just made enquiries, and they were so welcoming. You know, I would have been a terrible master's student if I'd gone straight into masters straight after graduating with my undergraduate, you know, like I needed to have this life experience of working as a clinician to give me some impetus or meaning, I think. So yeah good things take time, right?

What is the most exciting part of your research?

CS: It's hard to narrow it down. I love having access to the library database. I've gotta confess, my inner geek has really come out strong with that, that's been amazing. And again, because I can search for something, and I can relate it to my own clinical experience, think: "Ah that's like that time I saw that child. Or ah that's when I had that conversation with that teacher, I wish I'd known this to tell them about." So I've got that framework to hang all this knowledge on, which is really good. And also it's just exciting doing something new, I guess, discovering new things and you know, the essence of science, we're wanting to find out understand the world around us. And if you're curious and nosy, like I am, you want to find out more. So that's been really exciting, being able to find out more.

My last question is, if you could make one big change in the world, through your research, what would it be?

CS: So I guess to help the world, you know we might as well go big here—go big or go home—help the world to realise that language development is such an incredible and yet complex process and neurological process that we should all get really excited about language development and because it's one of those things that we tend to take for granted: "Oh yeah everyone talks, you know,” we don't really give it the mana that it deserves. There are so many processes involved from a cognitive level and also from a people level, you need to converse with people, it’s not an isolated event, it involves people. And so I guess it would be for people, in general, to understand and appreciate just how incredible language development is and to really raise it up and give it the mana. That we all get excited about words and we all really want to talk with our young children and our young people, and encourage them and gift them words, and know that we as adults, educators, parents can really grow language in young children. And we have such a vital role to play in supporting language development, that it doesn't just pop out of the clear blue sky into a child's head, you know. So yeah I guess in all of that, if you can narrow that down, that in an ideal world, that the world would get really excited about language and give it a lot of mana, therefore we'd be able to help grow language in our children and young people.

Well, thank you so much for talking with me, Catherine!

CS: You're most welcome! Nga mihi nui for having me and asking those great questions!

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