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Not quite ready for school

Dean Kalimniou on the challenge facing Greek Australian parents who choose to bring up their children with Greek as their first language

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03 August 2017

"It's quite simple," the kindergarten teacher commented nonchalantly. "Your daughter should repeat kindergarten. She isn't quite ready for school."

"Really. On what basis do you make that assessment?" the shocked mother asked.

"Well she doesn't relate to other kids and she doesn't follow instructions . . ."

"She doesn't speak English. How do you expect her to follow instructions if she doesn't understand what you are saying?" the mother countered.

"That's my point. She isn't ready for school," the teacher crowed triumphantly.

"What type of language support has my daughter been provided?" the mother continued, undaunted.

"Well, we are under-resourced . . ."

"Have you undertaken a skills analysis? Are you aware that she is literate in another two languages?"

"Yes but for the purposes of school next year . . ." the teacher stuttered, flummoxed. "Anyway, I think that maybe the fact she speaks other languages is making her confused. Maybe you should just concentrate on English."

"Are you aware of Dr Priscilla Clarke's paper on 'Supporting Children learning English as a Second Language in the Early Years?'" the mother persisted.

"I'm not. . ."

"In that paper, Dr Clarke says: 'Evidence shows that young children can learn more than one language with ease, as long as they are exposed to good language models and have plenty of exposure to both languages. Maintaining the first language does not interfere with the learning of English. Research suggests the opposite – that knowing one language can help the child understand how other languages work. The maintenance of the first or home language is particularly important for the child's development of a positive self-concept and wellbeing. 'Children who have the opportunity to maintain their first language can extend their cognitive development, while learning English as a second language. Their level of competence in the second language will be related to the level of competence they have achieved in their first language.' Are you aware of that?" the mother asked, handing the paper to the teacher.

"Yes but, for the purposes of school next year. . ." the teacher interjected.

"Furthermore," the mother interrupted, turning over the pages of the paper, "Dr Clarke has this to say about knowledge of the English language as a pre-requisite to readiness for school: 'Some early childhood professionals and parents believe that children who have limited English may not be ready to start school. They feel that the children's level of English will be insufficient to cope with the school environment. While it is an advantage for children to speak some English and be able to communicate their needs and wishes, some children do begin school without having been exposed to English, and schools have programs to support these new learners. 'For children who have already attended a children's service, the ability to speak English is an important asset that they can use within the school environment. However, children's readiness for school is shown in many ways. For example, children need to demonstrate an awareness of other children around them and be able to relate to others in a social context. Being able to take a risk and talk to a peer or adult even with only a few words in English is an indicator that a child is 'socially' ready for school. Other skills include self-confidence, positive social skills and an interest in learning. In the pre-school years early childhood professionals work with children to develop their social skills so that they are able to interact with others without much spoken English. It is important to remember that children's comprehension of English always exceeds their ability to speak fluent English and that the ability to communicate is not measured by grammatical competence.' "

"Oh," the teacher gasped.

"Does my child demonstrate an awareness of other children around her and is she able to relate to others in a social context?" the mother enquired.

"I suppose so."

"Does she take risks and talk to peers or adults even with only a few words in English?" the mother continued.

"Yes, she is speaking more and more English these past weeks," the teacher admitted.

"Does my child display self-confidence, positive social skills and an interest in learning?" the mother rejoined.

"Yes," the teacher responded.

"Then can you please tell me in what way you believe my child is not ready for school next year, given that it is July and we have another six months of pre-school to go?" the mother concluded.

Silence.

The above conversation is, unbeknownst to many of us, currently being played out, albeit with small variations, in pre-schools all around Melbourne, with the only difference being that many Greek Australian parents, who choose to bring up their children with Greek as their first language, are usually not aware of leading educator Dr Clarke's research and are generally unable to counter their children's pre-school teachers assertions that their offspring should repeat kindergarten, or that teaching them Greek is harmful, as it retards their acquisition of English.

Instead, confused and highly concerned parents, who seem to remember that they did not have much trouble mastering English when they first went to school, accept the teacher's usually baseless contention and either a) make their children unnecessarily repeat preschool or b) stop speaking to their children in Greek altogether. On the odd occasion, savvy parents will insist upon having their child's readiness for school assessed by an external professional. Invariably, lack of English is not considered by them to be an impediment to their starting school, though other behavioural problems may be.

As a result, parental confidence in their offspring's preschool teacher and their ability to support English language learning is greatly diminished.
In one glaring example, a mother was horrified to be informed by her son's pre-school teacher that he was, in her opinion, dyslexic. When asked for evidence to support her contention, the teacher pointed to the child's 'distorted' way of writing his name, even though his other classmates had not yet mastered the art of writing their own names. The mother glanced at the page and burst out laughing. The child had written his name perfectly, in the only language in which he was literate: Greek.

The fact that as a community, we have gone from being New Australians, to well-established has seen an erosion in resources, with regard to supporting English learning as a second language.

Gone are the enlightened multicultural programmes of the eighties, the Greek language readers commissioned by the Victorian and South Australian state governments to ease Greek speakers into English literacy. Three decades on, it is assumed that we have all become linguistically assimilated, with mother tongue Greek-speaking children considered to be an aberration by teachers and parent-peers alike, an unjustifiable drain on classroom resources, taking away the focus from those who have the 'right' to language support: recent arrivals, for the current multicultural paradigm does not seem to allow for the retention of a first language other than English, beyond one generation. The complexity of the situation is of course compounded in cases, such as that of my own children, whose family context has brought about them being conversant in two languages other than English, prior to their learning that language.

Although pre-school education is of vital importance as a pathway to further formal learning, our community is yet to articulate a unitary approach to it, or assess how it impacts upon Greek language learning, something that is surprising given the historic emphasis given to Greek language learning in the primary and secondary learning tiers. This is of concern not only because lack of training in supporting English as a second language (even though proper research exists to facilitate this) is resulting in educators providing faulty or incorrect advice to parents, making them feel bad about or undermining their language choices and ultimately contributing not only to monolingualism but also to a diminished preschool experience.

Ultimately, it is incumbent upon us to defend and justify our choices in the face of ignorance, but only when we have come together to work out what exactly it is we want from our pre-school education system. When asked by my daughter's prospective principal as to whether extreme patriotism was the main reason behind our choice in introducing her to her own ancestral languages prior to learning English, I responded as follows: "It is because growing up in Melbourne, I was only introduced to the works of world literature, Hans Christian Andersen, Miguel Cervantes, Maxim Gorky, Anton Chekhov and the like, in the Greek translations I was provided at Greek school. I never did encounter, or was taught, the great works of European literature in the English system. I do not want to deprive her of the same opportunity to enjoy a holistic education."

Smiling, the foreign-educated principal gave me the thumbs up. "Good thinking," she beamed.

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Comments

Both my husband and I were made to repeat grade prep in the early 1970s due to our poor English language skills. Go forward 40 years - we made the decision to speak English at home to our son from birth. We didn't want any pre-school or even primary school teachers telling us our son's English wasn't adequate. We haven't regretted our decision.
This mother should go and be a teacher herself then - she is so much smarter - and her child must be a genius - a preschooler that speaks 2 languages - except English - wow. I can't stop laughing at her comment 'the enlightened multicultural programmes of the eighties' - at the centre of this was Moreland High School' (it closed because most migrant parents took their children out because of those stupid policies' - they wanted to teach subjects in the students' native language - go figure - as one mother said at a meeting - "we want our children to learn English and go to university". Also this is why most new teachers last only 5 years and then leave. I wonder if this mother would challenge in a similar way - a doctor, a lawyer, an electrician, but I forget teachers know nothing they are always waiting for parents to tell them how to do their job.

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