Inclusive approach to language skills in early learning

Issue: Volume 101, Number 14

Posted: 1 November 2022
Reference #: 1HAXay

Ako Adventures in Tāmaki Makaurau is dedicated to developing language skills in early learning, and is exploring inclusive methods to improve language and communication for all learners.

The centre encourages language development in all activities, even playing in the sandpit

The centre encourages language development in all activities, even playing in the sandpit

Ako Adventures is an early learning service in Manurewa, Auckland. Samara Strugnell, a speech-language therapist, has been the director of the centre since November 2019. Before this she worked at the Ministry of Education as an advisor on Deaf children. Her vision for Ako Adventures?

To lead an early learning approach that is inclusive and language-centred.

“I realised there was a real need in South Auckland for something explicitly catering for Deaf children, but within a community context,” she says.

“The centre is a regular preschool in many ways with the same challenges that all early learning services face, but on top of that we’ve got this philosophy or ethos of really trying to create an inclusive environment.”

The centre has an enrolment of 60 children, but due to a transient population and absenteeism, the daily numbers at the centre are lower. Samara and her team try to eliminate potential barriers for accessing the centre – they provide a van to transport children, they don’t charge for food, and they top up the government’s 20 free hours to 30 for over three-year-olds.

Samara and her team support whānau when children first attend the centre by comforting them and letting them know that it is normal for children to feel uneasy at first, but they will adapt.

“We have an open-door policy. For some of our little ones and those who are transitioning, their parent will stay for however long they feel they need to, and sometimes we will encourage them to stay even longer just to make sure the children are really settled.”

Normalising NZSL

The centre aims to increase the language abilities of all students. To ease the situation for Deaf and hard of hearing children, the centre emphasises language access and support any listening devices the children are using.

“When I was an advisor on Deaf children, I would often go into centres and there wasn’t a good understanding about the importance of wearing hearing technology.

“With the children at our centre there is a very clear expectation that those children are wearing their devices. So, if a little one gets up from their nap and the teachers forget to replace hearing aids, I will say ‘hey, where are the hearing aids?’ There is a commitment from a leadership perspective to make sure that the hearing technology is on and working.”

The centre has two teachers who are fluent in New Zealand Sign Language. One of them is Deaf and acts as a role model for Deaf interaction as well as teaching the children NZSL.

“Having someone who truly, richly understands the language and modelling it is an advantage. The children have learnt how to approach her and to tap her on the shoulder to get her attention.

“She can lip read really well so she can understand what they’re saying to her, and the children have picked up what she’s communicating to them.”

The other teacher is fluent in NZSL and English and conversational in te reo Māori. She will often sign while talking out of habit. These two teachers, along with other staff who are not so fluent, mean the children have exposure to NZSL as part of their daily routine.

“It’s really been embedded and is part of the culture of the centre. Even our logo, which is a butterfly, is symbolic for our aspiration of setting up this co-enrolment space where children who are Deaf and hard of hearing are educated alongside their peers with both languages being used and valued.”

Story time can be a way to extend language, including NZSL.

Story time can be a way to extend language, including NZSL.

Broadening language opportunities

Te reo Māori is also embedded in the culture of the centre. The previous centre manager ensured the language was part of everyday use, and Samara noticed the extent of Māori language skills as soon as she took over the centre.

“I was sitting with the children outside and one of them said, ‘We need to say our karakia’, which was obviously part of their routine. He and all the others were able to say their karakia without me leading it. I was really impressed that the children had learnt their karakia.”

There was a temporary setback during Covid-19 when the centre lost many of their fluent speakers, but they are now back on track with teachers who can embed te reo Māori into everyday routines.

Samara is dedicated to improving all forms of language and has focused on PLD opportunities for her staff. This has included doing a course called ABC and Beyond, which encourages language and learning opportunities through storybooks.

“It covers different ways of using storybooks to extend language. A couple of the team went off and did that course and found it really, really valuable in that it shaped and changed the way they approached reading stories to children.”

Jisun Hutchison is one of the teachers who undertook the training. She was impressed with the practical nature of the course.

“Taking videos of my own practice certainly offered me opportunities to improve and reflect on my practice towards literacy.”

Jisun has also noticed that using the methods from the course has increased student engagement.

“One of the strategies the course introduced is having deeper conversations with the children while reading a book. This is a great way to encourage more meaningful interaction. It also helps me to understand the children’s existing knowledge and experience.”

A positive environment

Another learning opportunity has been the Incredible Years Teacher (IYT) programme that provides teachers with approaches to create a more positive learning environment. Samara says this is particularly important when working with children with delayed communication and language.

“We needed to really focus on upskilling around language as well as behaviour to support all the children in the environment. We’ve also spent lots of staff meetings talking about language development, our role in supporting that, and why we’re doing it.”

The course guides teachers as to the best means to encourage good behaviour through positive reinforcement and managing challenging behaviours.

“I think all teachers should do the course. The Ministry of Education funds it and they also pay $1,000 towards the cost of hiring relievers to enable you to attend the course.”

The process of improving language development is not confined to verbal interaction with the children. As well as having children who are Deaf and hard of hearing, the centre also has some children who are neurodiverse.

“We have been working collaboratively with the Ministry Learning Support around trying to increase the use of visual communication, not just sign language, but having good access to visuals in the classrooms. It will be a universal design for learning that will be beneficial for all our learners.”

Currently, teachers are working on which strategies they will employ to increase the use of visuals. This includes having lanyards with visuals that can be flipped to the visual they want to use – such as going to the toilet.

Samara encourages schools to contact the Ministry of Education Learning Support team, not just to get funding for individual children with needs, but to also work collaboratively in finding ways that will support all learners.

“I started out by saying, ‘I want to support all our learners. What are the holistic supports you can provide to upskill my team?’”

In addition to this she also recommends contacting other agencies skilled in working with groups that require specialist needs, such as Hearing House, Ko Taku Reo Deaf Education Centre, or Autism New Zealand.

“We have a responsibility as educators to do as much as possible to help our children with their development, particularly their language development.”

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 1:48 pm, 1 November 2022

Get new listings like these in your email
Set up email alerts