Despite assumptions to the contrary, young children from the northeast Netherlands do not on average enter primary school with language deficiencies. There are, however, vast differences between children raised in a linguistically stimulating environment and children lacking such an environment, producing a large group of children with problematic language deficiencies. This is the finding of research performed by special educationalist Bé Poolman, who will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 10 March.
For decades, the rural areas of the Dutch northeast have been associated with educational deficiencies caused by language deficiencies, due to clearly lower levels of education, fewer cultural amenities and a lower average income. Although policy aims to reduce language deficiency, no proper research has ever been conducted into the actual magnitude of these deficiencies. Researcher Bé Poolman is himself surprised to find that the region is fully in line with the rest of the country. ‘There is a group which shows average to good performance, sometimes even better than children elsewhere in the country. These children show excellent linguistic development, thus raising the average level.’ The problem, he claims, is the distribution across the children. ‘This distribution is what we call bimodal: there is one group that really shows substantial language deficiencies. This divide, which is the result primarily of cultural rather than socioeconomic causes, has already been established in previous research.
For his research, Poolman used existing national data and monitored the linguistic development of pupils from twelve schools in the Delfzijl area. He also conducted interviews with the children’s parents. Thus, he was able to establish that while parental educational level is significant, it is usually indirectly so, being mediated through such factors as the expectations parents have of their children, their views on parenting, and the role of language in the family. ‘This is, for example, about how families deal with language and literacy; families where children are being read books with a rich vocabulary show increased chances of good linguistic development. Yet, during my research, I have also talked to parents who felt that reading difficult books to their children was not very important. That is how these differences arise, since children acquire their linguistic skills mainly from their parents very early on in their lives.
Poolman sees opportunities for overcoming these deficiencies through external intervention. As far as he is concerned, not only the children should receive extra mentoring, but there should also be family support for the parents, with the primary aim of creating a more literate home environment and the secondary aim of helping parents to get ahead in life themselves through adult education. Comparable Family Learning Programmes have been running successfully in the UK.
Bé Poolman (Tollebeek, 1963) attended teacher training college before studying Special Education at the University of Groningen, where he has worked as a lecturer since 2010. Until 2010 he worked as a special educationalist at ABCG, the school support service for Groningen. His PhD thesis is entitled Differences in language development among young children in Northeast Netherlands. His supervisors are Prof. A.E.M.G. Minnaert and Prof. P.P.M. Leseman, and his co-supervisor was Dr J.M. Doornenbal.
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