Baby boomer women make up for lost study time and head back to university

 We should encourage older women to  
see academic study as a fruitful, challenging way forward, regardless of age.

Statistics from the Department of Education and Training show a steady cohort of baby boomer postgraduates, mostly women, enrolling at university at the age of 60 or over.

“Why on earth are you doing that?” friends ask. “Aren’t you a bit old? Your grandchildren will feel neglected.”

An upward trend

Between 2012 and 2015, Australian universities recorded a steady stream of enrolments. The larger the university, the higher the numbers. Take Western Australia’s five universities for example:



The numbers for male postgraduates were similar, occasionally slightly lower. Available figures for 2016 do not indicate appreciable changes in enrolment numbers of males or females. Both groups may include existing academic staff, but the question remains as to why baby boomers are moving towards higher academic studies rather than retirement.

Completion rates for senior researchers indicate that whatever their reasons, they are highly successful:



The old status quo

Social changes for women since the 1950s explain a lot. Women, it seems, are reaching towards long-held but unsatisfied desires for academic study.

In 1960s Australia, only 27% of university students were female. University was not a common goal for girls in that era. They were not expected to have long careers, if any at all. Acceptable options were nursing, clerical positions, teaching or hairdressing, none of which required a degree. Young married women were asked at job interviews if they intended to become pregnant, and learned to say “no” regardless of their intentions, rather than risk failing the interview.

University was not a common pathway for a girl, but marriage was. In the same time period, 45% of girls who left formal education after secondary school were married by the time they were 20. On the flip side, only 20% of those who did attend university were married by 20.

The era’s unwritten rule was marry early, have children straight away. Once children arrived, returning to work was frowned upon. For example, one colleague waited until her children were over 18, then delayed her academic aspirations even longer to help care for grandchildren. “Family first,” she said. She was halfway through a PhD when we met, and closer to 70 years old than 60.

Social change

Since the 1960s, the status of women and the acceptability of post-marriage careers and further social changes have made university education for young women a viable option. Baby boomers who missed out are now seizing their opportunity. Their motivation is not the apprehension of retirement and subsequent loss of identity, as is the case with older male postgraduates, but rather the lure of a new phase of life. One that was out of reach before. At university, senior women are achieving in their own right, no longer functioning as complementary bodies to men as mothers, wives, sisters or daughters.

I began postgraduate research at 63. In 2015, I was among 118 women over 60 at Western Australia’s five universities who successfully completed their degrees. In Australia’s most populous state, New South Wales, 373 senior women from 13 universities gained postgraduate degrees.

Studies show the intellectual, physical and emotional benefit of such challenges for older people. In 1989, UNESCO viewed academic and further education for older people as a legitimate use of higher education. In 2005 the OECD recognised the needs and aspirations of older people.

While it may still be seen as unusual for women to begin academic studies in their later years, it is not strange for women in their sixties to continue fulfilling academic careers. Academia is one place where seniors of any gender continue working until they decide to call it a day. Examples of women who do just that are easy to find: Professor of Classics at Cambridge University Mary Beard, age 62. Germaine Greer, writer and Professor at Warwick University, age 78. Curtin University’s Associate Professor Liz Byrski, age 73. The list goes on.

Senior female academics’ potential

We should encourage older women to see academic study as a fruitful, challenging way forward, regardless of age.

For the trailblazing cohort of older researchers, the question remains – is there a future for them after graduating? They can assure themselves that they are role-models to grandchildren, other women, and the wider community. Some become mentors, officially or unofficially, to younger postgraduates or they may take up sessional academic positions – but they can do and be so much more.

People are living longer. We are healthier and more active in our later years. We are told 50 is the new 40, so surely 60 can be the new 50. Baby boomer postgraduates want to participate long after they are 60. It is shortsighted not to see the social and economic benefits of this. To the universities who nurtured them, and awarded scholarships, these women are an untapped asset. They could easily become research pods of energy and output, supported by their alma maters, to the advantage of both.


This article was written by:

Image of Lesley NealeLesley Neale – [Adjunct Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Curtin University]

 

 

 

 

 

This article is part of a syndicated news program via

When it comes to kids and social media, it’s not all bad news

Image of kids texting Parents should understand 
where the value is in social media so they can guide their kids to positive use.

While we often hear about the negative impact social media has on children, the use of sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram is not a one-size-fits-all activity. Children use it in a wide variety of ways – some of which are adding value to their lives.

There are risks associated with social media use. But it’s also important to understand where the value is, and how to guide children to get the most out of their time online.

Social media is a platform for sharing ideas, information and points of view. This can have important educational value: it extends the information young people can access while also giving them insight into how others think about and use that information.

For example, an Instagram image can give first-hand insight into how an artist today – or many artists around the world – interprets and applies Picasso’s cubist technique. This insight makes the information about Picasso real for the child. It supports a deeper understanding of his techniques, and a deeper appreciation that learning about them is worthwhile.

With so many trending topics online, young people can be exposed to “insider” knowledge across many different subjects they are familiar with, as well as introducing them to new ones.

Maximum educational benefit comes from combining factual information with shared reflection. This can support a balanced, varied and “real” input for kids, which can help deepen their understanding of a subject.

Health benefits

Research shows social media can have significant benefits for children with a medical condition.

A dedicated online Facebook group can help kids connect with others who understand and relate to their condition. This can support them with a sense of belonging, a safe space for expression, and opportunities to better understand and cope with their condition.

Social media can also raise community awareness about certain health problems. While it’s not a replacement for reliable, medically sourced information, a thought-provoking image, or first-hand Facebook account posted by someone with depression, or multiple sclerosis, can spark new thinking for others about the condition and how it affects people’s daily lives.

Sharing health information in this informal way has been found to help combat the stigma about such conditions in the community.

New social avenues

One of the benefits of using Snapchat or Instagram is that the regular online connection can help to strengthen the friendships young people have formed offline.

For those children who feel marginalised in their local community, social media can help them connect with other people who share the same interests or outlook on life.

In some cases, teenagers with critical problems can turn to social networks for fast support and guidance. There are plenty of groups that offer such help online.

Social media is also an important platform for driving social issues, such as racial issues, to greater national and international attention. For example, The Books N Bros online book club was established by an 11-year-old boy who wanted to make reading fun for kids while highlighting African-American literature.

The Black Lives Matter movement started as a Twitter hashtag before it became a major political movement and a noteworthy issue in the 2016 US presidential election.

What should parents do?

An awareness of social media’s benefits can help adults understand why technology is so attractive to young people, the potential positive uses of these online spaces, and how to talk to children about their social media use.

When approaching a conversation with kids about social media, it’s important not to have an “us-versus-them” attitude. Understanding and accepting that different generations use technology differently is a good starting point. It provides opportunities for understanding each other as technology users, to be more aware of when issues arise, and how to guide children to positive and empowering uses of technology.

This article was written by:
Image of Joanne OrlandoJoanne Orlando – [Researcher: Technology and Learning, Western Sydney University]

 

 

 

 

 

This article is part of a syndicated news program via

 

How building your child’s spoken word bank can boost their capacity to read

Image of a child on a parkl bench reading Children benefit from previous 
understanding of spoken words before reading them.Africa Studio/Shutterstock

Children’s oral vocabulary – their knowledge of the sounds and meanings of words – is strongly positively associated with their reading all the way through school. Understanding this relationship is important for making children’s reading as strong as possible.

Our new research has pointed to one mechanism underlying this association: when primary school children know a spoken word, they form an expectation of what that word should look like when it is written down – and they do this even if they have never seen it before.

Using eye-tracking technology, we demonstrated that these expectations can help children to process orally familiar words more quickly when they read them for the first time.

The tech: understanding eye-tracking

Advances in technology have made it much easier to use eye-tracking with children. Unlike old systems that were mounted on participants’ heads, new systems (shown below) sit on the desk in front of the child. The eye-tracker finds a small target sticker on the child’s forehead and uses it to work out where the child’s eyes are.

Image of a child at a computer
Jo Stephan, Macquarie University, Author provided

Eye-trackers are special cameras that can follow the movement of the eyes as children read in real time. They provide information about where children look and how long they look for, giving insight into what is happening when children read.

When the properties of a written word are changed (for example, how many letters it has or how frequently it occurs in written language), this influences how easy or difficult those words are to process.

Put simply, when processing is easy, looking times are shorter. When processing is hard, looking times are longer.

The experiment: from hearing to seeing

In order to form expectations about written words that have not yet been seen, children require a combination of knowledge about:

  • the pronunciation and meaning of a spoken word; and
  • the links between the sounds in spoken words and the written letters that represent them.

The figure below illustrates that by drawing this information together, children can imagine the written form of words they cannot see.

Picture showing how vocabulary knowledge works
The formation of ‘Finch’. Author provided

We taught children in Year 4 the pronunciations and meanings of some made-up words. We told them the words were inventions coming from “Professor Parsnip’s invention factory”. Each invention had a name and a function. A “nesh”, for example, is an automatic card shuffler (see below).

During this training period children learned some new oral vocabulary but they never saw any of the words written down.

Drawing provided by the author

Later we took the words the children had learned about and some other words they hadn’t learned about, and put them into some simple sentences. We then tracked the movement of the children’s eyes as they read.

Previously heard versus previously unheard words

We found that when children had previously learned about a spoken word, they spent less time looking at it than other words they hadn’t heard about. This suggested their reading was enhanced by their previous oral vocabulary.

The time spent looking at the words they had learned about was also affected by how predictable the spellings of the words were. This revealed that children formed advance expectations about how the words were likely to be spelled.

When a word was spelled in a way that was what they expected to see, this helped their reading. For example, if the children had learned the spoken word “nesh”, we showed them the written word nesh.

Recognising nesh.

But when we showed them a word that was spelled in a way the children probably did not expect to see, the children were surprised by this and they focused on it longer. For example, the children were surprised when they learned the spoken word “coib” but we showed them the written word koyb.

Recognising koyb.

In the two videos, there is a clear difference in reading times for the unpredictably spelled word koyb and the predictably spelled word nesh.

The fact that children’s reading was affected by whether they knew the spoken form of the word and how predictably it was spelled shows that when children hear spoken words they form expectations about what those words should look like before they see them. In turn, this can help their reading.

Building oral vocabulary and boosting literacy skills

Making deposits in children’s spoken word banks – their store of words with known pronunciations and meanings – is an important and practical way of helping to support their literacy development.

Classrooms are logical places to teach children new spoken words, but parents can create learning opportunities at home too. If an unfamiliar word arises during conversation or shared book reading, perhaps try starting a dialogue by asking your child whether they have heard it before.

This article was co-authored by:
Image of Signy WegenerSigny Wegener – [PhD Candidate in the Department of Cognitive Science and ARC Centre of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders, Macquarie University]
and
Image of Anne Castles Anne Castles – [Deputy Director, ARC Centre of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders, Macquarie University]

 

 

 

 

 

This article is part of a syndicated news program via

 

 

Electronic games: how much is too much for kids?

Image of kids playing an electronic game When played in moderation, electronic games
can be beneficial for children’s learning and development.

Most parents view their children’s playing of electronic games as potentially problematic – or even dangerous.

Concerns about electronic gaming do not stack up against the research. So, how much gaming is too much for young children?

Electronic games (also called computer or digital games) are found in 90% of households in Australia. 65% of households have three or more game devices. Given this prevalence, it’s timely to look more closely at electronic game playing and what it really means for children’s development and learning.

study of more than 3,000 children participating in the Growing Up in Australia: Longitudinal Study of Australian Children explored children’s electronic gaming. This national sample was broadly representative of the Australian population.

The study had two phases:

  • parents reported on their children’s use of electronic games when their children were eight or nine years of age; and
  • teachers reported two years later on these children’s social and emotional development and academic achievement, when the children were 10 or 11.

How much time do kids spend gaming?

As the table below shows, there was wide variation in the number of hours per week the children spent playing electronic games.

Most children (52%) played electronic games for four or fewer hours per week. But nearly one-year of the children (24%) were reported as playing electronic games for more than seven hours per week.

How much time should kids spend gaming?

Taking into account family background and parental education, the good news is that low-to-moderate use of electronic games (between two and four hours per week) had a positive effect on children’s later academic achievement.

However, over-use of electronic games (more than seven hours per week) had a negative effect on children’s social and emotional development.

Children whose parents reported they played electronic games for two-to-four hours per week were identified by their teachers as showing better literacy and mathematical skills.

Surprisingly, children who were reported as playing electronic games infrequently or not at all (less than two hours per week) did not appear to benefit in terms of literacy or mathematics achievement.

However, children whose parents reported that they played electronic games for more than one hour per day were identified two years later by their teachers as having poor attention span, less ability to stay on task, and displaying more emotional difficulties.

As the graphs below show, moderate game playing was associated with the most benefits both academically and emotionally.

Are some games better than others?

It is likely that the relationship between the use of electronic games and children’s academic and developmental outcomes is far from straightforward. The quality of electronic games and the family context play important roles.

Electronic games known as sandbox games are recognised as offering opportunities for collaboration with others while engaging in creative and problem solving activities. One of the well-known examples of a sandbox game is Minecraft.

Social interactions are important in supporting children’s engagement in electronic games. A closer examination of children’s experiences at home may be beneficial in understanding the context of gaming in everyday life.

Often viewed as a leisure activity, studies show that when parents and siblings participate in the game playing, they offer opportunities to negotiate with each other, and engage in conversations and literacy practices. All of these potentially contribute to the child’s language, literacy and social development.

It is important to note that while we know the amount of time children spent playing electronic games, we do not know the detail of the kinds of games that were being played, with whom they were being played, or even the device on which they were played.

This contextual information is clearly relevant for consideration in any further research that explores the relationship across children’s electronic game playing, learning, and wellbeing.

This article was co-authored by:
Image of Sue WalkerSue Walker – [ Professor, School of Early Childhood, Queensland University of Technology]
and
Image of Susan DanbySusan Danby – [ Professor of Education, Queensland University of Technology]

 

 

 

 

 

This article is part of a syndicated news program via

 

Could you pass the proposed English test for Australian citizenship?

English language tests will be used 
to decide Australian citizenship.

The Australian government is proposing tough new English language competency requirements for those seeking Australian citizenship.

Alongside a test of Australian values, and proof of your integration into Australian society, you’ll need to prove you can read, write and speak English at a competent level

We’ve been here before

Question: What do these two excerpts have in common – besides their clumsy sentence structure?

  1. If the land is ploughed when wet the furrows may, and in all probability will, wear a more finished appearance, and will be more pleasant to the eye, but land so ploughed will be more inclined to become set or baked, and when in this state will not produce a maximum yield.
  2. By carefully preplanning projects, implementing pollution control measures, monitoring the effects of mining and rehabilitating mined areas, the coal industry minimises the impact on the neighbouring community, the immediate environment and long-term land capability.

Answer: They are both language tests used to decide Australian citizenship.

The first is a 50 word dictation test that was key to the White Australia Policy. It was used to keep non-Europeans out of Australia.

Even if you passed the test in English, the immigration officer had the right to test you again in another European language. It was used from 1901 until 1958.

The second one is 50 words from a 1000 word reading comprehension exam with 40 questions that you must complete in 60 minutes.

This test is key to Australia’s proposed new Citizenship test. You must also write two essays, do a 30 minute listening test and a 15 minute speaking exam. If it passes through Parliament this week, it will be used from 2017.

Aspiring Australian citizens will need to score a Band 6 on the general stream of the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) test, the same score as those seeking entry to Australia’s top university.

So, could you pass the test?

The reading test

You have 60 minutes to read at least four texts taken from magazines, newspapers or training manuals, and answer 40 comprehension questions. Your short answer responses are also assessed for grammar and spelling. Here is an excerpt from a piece about bee behaviour.

The direction of the sun is represented by the top of the hive wall. If she runs straight up, this means that the feeding place is in the same direction as the sun. However, if, for example, the feeding place is 40 degrees to the left of the sun, then the dancer would run 40 degrees to the left of the vertical line.

Try the test for yourself.

The writing test

You have 60 minutes to complete two writing tasks. For example,

Write a letter to the accommodation officer complaining about your room mate and asking for a new room.

You are marked on the length of your response, its cohesion, vocabulary and grammar.

To give you something to gauge yourself by, this one didn’t achieve the required score of 6. It begins,

Dear Sir/Madam, I am writing to express my dissatisfaction with my room-mate. As you know we share one room, I can not study in the room at all any more if I still stay there.

As Senator Penny Wong observed about the test,

“Frankly if English grammar is the test there might be a few members of parliament who might struggle.”

Currently our national school test results from NAPLAN show that 15.3% of Year 9 students are below benchmark in writing. This means they would not achieve a Band 6 on the IELTS test.

A fair test?

I prepared students for the IELTS test when I lived and taught in Greece. They needed a score of 6 to get into Foundation courses in British universities. It wasn’t an easy test and sometimes it took them more than one try to succeed.

My students were middle class, living comfortably at home with mum and dad. They had been to school all their lives and were highly competent readers and writers in their mother tongue of Greek.

They had been learning English at school since Grade 4, and doing private English tuition after school for even longer. Essentially they had been preparing for their IELTS test for at least 8 years.

They were not 40-year-old women whose lives as refugees has meant they have never been to school, and cannot read and write in their mother tongue.

Neither were they adjusting to a new culture, trying to find affordable accommodation and a job while simultaneously dealing with post-traumatic stress and the challenge of settling their teenage children into a brand new world.

Learning a language takes time

Even if we conclude that tests about dancing bees and recalcitrant room-mates are fit for the purpose of assessing worthiness for citizenship – and that is surely very debatable – we must acknowledge that it is going to take a very long time for our most vulnerable aspiring citizens to reach a proficiency that will enable them to pass the test.

Currently we offer them 510 hours of free English tuition. That is at least 5 years short of what the research says is required to reach English language competency.

Testing English doesn’t teach it

The three ingredients of successful language learning are motivation, opportunity and good tuition.

The Australian government must address all three if it wishes to increase the English language proficiency of its citizens.

An English language test may appear to be a compelling motivation to learn the language, but without the opportunity to learn and excellent tuition over time, the test is not a motivation. It is an unfair barrier to anyone for whom English is not their mother tongue.

And then this new policy starts to look and feel like Australia’s old White Australia Policy.

This article was written by:

Image of Misty Adoniou

Misty Adoniou – [Associate Professor in Language, Literacy and TESL, University of Canberra]

 

 

 

 

 

This article is part of a syndicated news program via

 

Teenagers who are both bully and victim are more likely to have suicidal thoughts

Teens as bully & victim likely to have suicidal thoughts_Heading
Teenagers who bully also have a high risk of mental health issues
Teenagers who bully also have a high risk of mental health issues

Most research into teen bullying tends to focus only on the victim. This means we know little about how the bully is affected. A new Australian study shows that teenagers who have been both a victim and a bully are at greatest risk of mental health problems, including self-harm and suicidal thoughts.

Author provided
Author provided

Bullies are victims too

When it comes to bullying, there is a common misconception that adolescents neatly fall into a category of bully, victim, or not involved. But this is not the case.

In fact, three-quarters of the adolescents who reported that they had bullied others were also victims of bullying.

The study asked 3,500 14-to-15-year-old Australian teenagers – who were participants in the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC) – whether they had experienced any of 13 different types of bullying behaviour in the past month.

This included being hit or kicked on purpose, called names, or forced to do something they didn’t want to do.

The participants were asked if they had bullied anyone in the last month using the same bullying behaviours.

LSAC also included questions about whether teenagers had self-harmed, had suicidal thoughts, and whether they had made a plan to attempt suicide.

One-third of teenagers reported that they had either bullied, been a victim of bullying, or both (bully-victim).

On the whole, all three groups were more likely to report self-harm, suicidal thoughts and a plan for suicide than those who were not involved in bullying.

Among bullies only, one in ten had self-harmed and one in eight had thought about suicide in the past year.

Teenagers who were both the bully and the victim of bullying had the highest levels of self-harm (20%) and suicidal thoughts (20%).

Involvement in bullying was associated with two times the risk of self-harm and four times the risk of suicidal thoughts. This was the case even after taking into account other factors that might explain the findings, such as gender, single parent versus couple household, ethnicity and socio-economic status.

Girls more likely to be affected

Suicidal thoughts and self-harm were highest among girls involved in bullying.

More than one in three girls who were both the bully and the victim self-harmed (35%) and one in four had suicidal thoughts (26%).

The levels among boys who were bully-victims were 11% and 16% respectively.

However, even among teenagers not involved in bullying, self-harm or having suicidal thoughts were more common among girls than boys.

There were also gender differences in roles in bullying. Of those who were only victims 58% were girls, while 69% of those who were only a bully were male.

However, this is not the complete story. Boys represented a higher proportion of those who had a dual role as both a victim and a bully (61%).

Who bullies?

While we don’t know why teenagers bully, other research suggests that children who bully are more likely to exhibit “externalising behaviours”. These are defined as:

defiant, aggressive, disruptive and non-compliant behaviour.

They were also more likely to have:

  • negative thoughts, beliefs and attitudes about themselves and others
  • been negatively influenced by peers
  • lived in families where there were problems such as parental conflict.

What can be done?

Our research highlights the fact that bullying interventions must recognise the often complex nature of bullying, and particularly the multiple roles that individuals may adopt.

Targeting victims of bullying only may miss opportunities to have a broader impact on bullying.

Reducing bullying requires a multifaceted approach focusing on individuals involved, parents, teacher and school climate.

Based on the results of multiple studies, it is estimated that school-based interventions can reduce bullying behaviour by around 20%.

Extrapolating from our findings, this would lead to an 11% reduction in the proportion of students who self-harm or have suicidal thoughts.

Some studies have shown that whole-of-school interventions that target school-wide rules and sanctions, teacher training, classroom curriculum, conflict-resolution training, and individual counselling yield better results than those that target only one component.

One of the other problems is that while school-based interventions may reduce bullying behaviour in the short term, the evidence for long-term behaviour change is limited.

This article was co-written by:

Anne Kavanagh
Anne Kavanagh – [Professor and Head, Gender and Women’s Health Unit, Centre for Health Equity, University of Melbourne]
Naomi Priest
Naomi Priest – [Fellow, ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods, Australian National University] 
Tania King – [Research Fellow, University of Melbourne]


This piece was co-authored by Dr Rebecca Ford, an intern at the Royal Melbourne Hospital.

If you have been affected by any of the issues discussed, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

This article is part of a syndicated news program via the Conversation

English language bar for citizenship likely to further disadvantage refugees

 Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has proposed tougher language requirements for new citizenship applicants

Citizenship applicants will need to demonstrate a higher level of English proficiency if the government’s proposed changes to the Australian citizenship test go ahead.

Applicants will be required to reach the equivalent of Band 6 proficiency of the International English Language Testing System (IELTS).

To achieve Band 6, applicants must correctly answer 30 out of 40 questions in the reading paper, 23 out of 40 in the listening paper, and the writing paper rewards language used “accurately and appropriately”. If a candidate’s writing has “frequent” inaccuracies in grammar and spelling, they cannot achieve Band 6

Success in IELTS requires proficiency in both the English language, and also understanding how to take – and pass – a test. The proposed changes will then make it harder for people with fragmented educational backgrounds to become citizens, such as many refugees.

How do the tests currently work?

The current citizenship test consists of 20 multiple-choice questions in English concerning Australia’s political system, history, and citizen responsibilities.

While the test does not require demonstration of English proficiency per se, it acts as an indirect assessment of language.

For example, the question: “Which official symbol of Australia identifies Commonwealth property?” demonstrates the level of linguistic complexity required.

The IELTS test is commonly taken for immigration purposes as a requirement for certain visa categories; however, the designer of IELTS argues that IELTS was never designed for this purpose. Researchers have argued that the growing strength of English as the language of politics and economics has resulted in its widespread use for immigration purposes.

Impact of proposed changes

English is undoubtedly important for participation in society, but deciding citizenship based on a high-stakes language test could further marginalise community members, such as people with refugee backgrounds who have the greatest need for citizenship, yet lack the formal educational background to navigate such tests.

The Refugee Council of Australia argues that adults with refugee backgrounds will be hardest hit by the proposed language test.

Data shows that refugees are both more likely to apply for citizenship, and twice as likely as other migrant groups to have to retake the test.

Mismatched proficiency expectations

The Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP), where many adult refugees access English learning upon arrival, expects only a “functional” level of language proficiency.

For many adult refugees – who have minimal first language literacy, fragmented educational experiences, and limited opportunities to gain feedback on their written English – “competency” may be prohibitive to gaining citizenship. This is also more likely to impact refugee women, who are less likely to have had formal schooling and more likely to assume caring duties.

Bar too high?

The challenges faced in re/settlement contexts, such as pressures of work and financial responsibilities to extended family, often combine to make learning a language difficult, and by extension, prevent refugees from completing the citizenship test.

Similar patterns are evident with IELTS. Nearly half of Arabic speakers who took the IELTS in 2015 scored lower than Band 6.

There are a number of questions to clarify regarding the proposed language proficiency test:

  • Will those dealing with trauma-related experiences gain exemption from a high-stakes, time-pressured examination?
  • What support mechanisms will be provided to assist applicants to study for the test?
  • Will financially-disadvantaged members of the community be expected to pay for classes/ materials in order to prepare for the citizenship test?
  • The IELTS test costs A$330, with no subsidies available. Will the IELTS-based citizenship/ language test attract similar fees?

There are also questions about the fairness of requiring applicants to demonstrate a specific type and level of English under examination conditions that is not required of all citizens. Those born in Australia are not required to pass an academic test of language in order to retain their citizenship.

Recognising diversity of experiences

There are a few things the government should consider before introducing a language test:

1) Community consultation is essential. Input from community/ migrant groups, educators, and language assessment specialists will ensure the test functions as a valid evaluation of progression towards English language proficiency. The government is currently calling for submissions related to the new citizenship test.

2) Design the test to value different forms and varieties of English that demonstrate progression in learning rather than adherence to prescriptive standards.

3) Provide educational opportunities that build on existing linguistic strengths that help people to prepare for the test.

Equating a particular type of language proficiency with a commitment to Australian citizenship is a complex and ideologically-loaded notion. The government must engage in careful consideration before potentially further disadvantaging those most in need of citizenship.

This article was co-written by:
Sally Baker – [Research Associate, Centre of Excellence for Equity in Higher Education, University of Newcastle] and
Rachel Burke – [Lecturer, University of Newcastle]

 

How do we learn to read?

 The aim of all reading is comprehension

The sign on the public car park in the tiny Tasmanian town of Wynyard reads,

Egress from this carpark is to be via the access lane in the rear.

“Egress?” I wondered.

As my 21-year-old son quipped, perhaps the council had called in the local duke to write its signs. Or at least the local lawyer.

I could say all the words on the sign with very little effort, and with impressive fluency.

That is called decoding.

I had to work a little harder to understand what the sign was saying.

That is called comprehending.

The aim of reading is, of course, comprehension.

In essence, debates around how to best teach reading have been about which comes first, the decoding or the comprehending.

Research concludes these debates are redundant because comprehension and decoding are codependent.

The federal government’s recent proposal, however, for a Year 1 Phonics Screening test – which tests a child’s ability to decode made-up words – appears to support the view that decoding comes before comprehension.

Comprehension, therefore, is deemed irrelevant – at least initially.

So who is right? The researchers or the politicians?

Let’s take a look at what the research tells us about how we learn to read.

Tackling unknown words

It was the first word in the car park sign that threw me. “Egress.”

I used my knowledge of how sounds map on to letters in English to decode it. However, because I couldn’t remember ever hearing the word said out loud, I wasn’t sure if I was decoding it correctly.

It might be EE-gress or ee-GRESS, EGG-ress, or egg-RESS. It is the first, apparently. I Googled it later.

In any case my decoding efforts didn’t help me understand what the word means. In order for decoding skills to be of any use in reading, children need an excellent vocabulary to which they can cross reference as they attempt to decode.

Tip 1: teach phonics through words already in the children’s vocabulary.

Building children’s vocabularies

Before we rush out and start teaching children lists of vocabulary, words in lists are not enough.

If someone had shown me “egress” by itself on a flashcard, I might have guessed it was a bird.

Luckily, “egress” was in a full sentence on a sign in front of a car park, and all of that context helped me comprehend the word.

Without context, words are just letters on a page. This is because all words in English are polysemic – they have multiple meanings depending upon the context.

The wind in my hair. My baby has wind.

And some words keep their spelling but change their pronunciation as well as their meaning.

I’d like to wind you up. I need to wind my clock. Why do I always **wind **up doing the dishes.

Tip 2: build your children’s vocabulary by talking and reading to them so that they encounter words in all their many and varied guises. Seeing a word in many different contexts is more important than just seeing the word flashed at you many times.

Grammar matters

The grammar of the parking sign in Wynyard also helped my comprehension.

I had figured out from the context that “egress” meant either entry or exit. I hear a lot of language so I understand how words “collocate” in English – that is, how some words always hang out together grammatically. My experience with the language meant I knew that we exit “from” and enter “into”.

The more we hear and read real language, the more we learn about how word order works in English.

Tip 3: teach reading through real books with real language so that children learn the rhythm and patterns of English grammar.

Experience counts

I relied on my experience as a driver to look around and see that a median strip in the road would make “egress” from the front of the car park tricky. Life experience helps us read too.

If I write I live in a studio apartment in San Jose, your interpretation of where I live will depend upon whether you understand a studio apartment to be a basement bedsit, or penthouse bachelor pad. It will depend on whether you understand San Jose to be an affluent tech hub or an working class industrial city.

The words alone cannot carry all the meaning of my message. You bring your life experience to the task of reading my words.

Tip 4: give children lots of real life experiences and talk to them about what they see. Trips out and about, and chats about things beyond their everyday environment are important.

Are we giving poor readers the help they need?

Good readers have a full repertoire of skills, each dependent upon the other.

  • They have excellent oral language and a wide vocabulary. They know what words mean and this helps them decode.
  • They can decode and this helps them locate the word in their existing vocabulary.
  • They know the structure of English through exposure to authentic complex written and spoken language.
  • They use rich life experiences to support their comprehension of written texts.

Poor readers need all of these skills too. Yet our interventions for poor readers typically only address one skill – decoding.

Our declining results in international tests of literacy show us that our 15 year olds can decode but they can’t comprehend.

Until we pay full attention to all the other reading skills, the decline will continue.

This article was written by:
Misty Adoniou – [Associate Professor in Language, Literacy and TESL, University of Canberra]

How animals can help autistic children

 And they call it puppy love

Daniel the “emotional support duck” is a pretty big deal, both in the animal and human world. His 15 minutes of fame began after he was spotted on a flight in the US – from Charlotte to Asheville, North Carolina – waddling around the plane in a nappy and some stylish red shoes.

He is said to help his 37-year-old owner, Carla Fitzgerald, battle the post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) she has had since an accident in 2013.

The use of “emotional support animals” has become big business recently – particularly in the US – and it’s not just ducks like Daniel that humans have claimed make a helpful addition to their day-to-day lives.

There have also been reports of emotional support pigs, cats, turkeys, chickens and even miniature horses. It seems that all types of animals are increasingly being used to assist patients – in the belief they can help people with autism, PTSD and other conditions function in their everyday lives.

But of course, despite this new wave of popularity, interacting with animals has long been considered to be good for people. There has also been issues raised with the number of animals used in this way – with some animal researchers raising animal welfare concerns. Therapists have also expressed their concern at the rise of “emotional support animals” – with many in the profession feeling not all of the animals used are legitimate “support animals”.

Loving pets

“Emotional support animal” or “pet” aside, it is maybe obvious that one of the main benefits that comes from a friendship with animals is that they are a source of “non-verbal” and “non-judgmental” companionship for both adults and children. These are friends who will be there for us day in day out. Friends who will always be up for a walk or a chin rub, or a game of fetch.

Many pet owners also describe the “social lubricant” effect of their pet – reporting lower incidences of loneliness and depression.

Dog owners typically – but not always – have higher levels of physical exercise than non-owners. And animal contact is often associated with exposure to the outdoors and natural stimuli – which is considered to be beneficial for human health and welbeing.

Novel situations and experiences also often result from animal interactions – which can create enjoyable and motivational learning opportunities for children.

Fiver

Contact with animals is also widely regarded as an essential and natural part of childhood. I still remember my very first pet rabbit with deep affection. That rabbit “Fiver” – yes, I was a Watership Down fan – represented my first real responsibility for another living being. She was also a great friend and confidant.

And it is this realisation, that animals can be good for children’s development that explains why so many recent studies have focused on animal and children interactions.

This has led to animals increasingly being viewed and employed as useful partners in the educational and emotional development of children. There are now, for example, many schemes where children read to dogs to develop their reading skills with a canine “listener”.

Dogs can be great listeners and play pals. 

But while dogs and horses are the most commonly used species for therapeutic and educational interactions, a range of other animals – ducks and miniature horses aside – have also been used successfully.

A recent study, for example, examined how interactions with classroom guinea pigs impacted on children with autism. And it was shown that for these children, spending time with the guinea pigs resulted in significantly improved social skills and motivation for learning.

Animal attributes

There are also other identified developmental benefits for children interacting with animals. Evidence suggests that children exposed to animals may have improved immune systems and a reduced incidence of allergies.

Therapy animals have also been shown to reduce pain in hospitalised children. And animals appear to enhance the social, emotional and cognitive development of children and aid the development of empathy. Exposure to companion animals has additionally been shown to boost levels of responsibility, self esteem and autonomy in children.

And then she said what? 

But of course, despite the benefits to both children and adults, the welfare of animals used in therapeutic, educational or other interactions, is also important.

Swimming with dolphins and direct encounters with other exotic species has previously attracted attention for therapeutic value – especially for children with physical and intellectual disabilities – though recent gudielines now strongly advise against the use of such species. This is both due to animal welfare concerns and concerns for human participants.

This is why any animal involved in such interactions needs positive and ethical training, along with high health and welfare standards. All of which will help to make sure that the animals people are engaging with in these environments are happy animals – which can then in turn help to create happy humans.

This article was written by:

Can a four-year-old be sexist?

 Children are exposed to gender differences and expectations from the moment they are born

The Victorian government has announced it plans to teach its Respectful Relationship program to preschoolers as a way to target and prevent sexist behaviour among children aged three and four years old.

The program – which is taught to teenagers in schools – more broadly aims to tackle issues around family violence, and also to develop young people’s social skills and promote respectful relationships.

The justification for extending this program into preschool settings, according to the document released by the state government, is that

as young children learn about gender, they may also begin to enact sexist values, beliefs and attitudes that may contribute to disrespect and gender inequality.

But can children at that age be sexist? When is it that children are aware of gender differences – and what makes them act on it?

When do children become aware of their gender?

Researchers have shown that by age one (and in some studies, as early as three months old), children show clear preferences for gender-consistent toys (eg trucks for boys, dolls for girls). This occurs even if they have only been exposed to gender-neutral toys, or had equal access to both “boys” and “girls” toys.

So, does this mean that kids as young as three months are aware of their gender?

No. It’s not until about age three that children have a basic understanding of gender identity – but even then, it’s pretty tenuous.

At this age, it’s not uncommon for kids to still be confused regarding gender – for example, a girl thinking she will grow up to be a man, or a boy referring to his mum as “him”.

However, the emergence of basic gender identity helps us to explain why by age three children prefer to play with same-sex peers and engage in gender-stereotyped play.

Researchers have suggested that this shows children understand the differences between genders and are aware that they “fit” better with one gender than the other.

Gender constancy – that is understanding that being male or female is a fixed personal attribute – does not develop completely until around age six to seven.

Gender constancy develops as a result of cognitive development (so children are able to understand more abstract concepts like gender), as well as learning about social expectations for their behaviour. Psychologists refer to this as “socialisation.

By age three, children prefer to play with same-sex peers. 

…and of gender differences and expectations?

Few people would think they encouraged gender-stereotyped play and behaviours in children. But remember the old saying “do as I say, not as I do”? It’s pretty apt here.

Kids imitate the behaviours of important role models in their lives: parents, caregivers and teachers alike.

This is particularly strong when the role model is of the same sex – girls are more likely to model the behaviours of adult females and boys of adult males.

So, even if we tell them that “girls can do anything boys can do”, if they only ever see dad but never mum doing vehicle maintenance, the words may not have much impact.

It’s not like parents wake up one day and decide “today is the day I make my gender expectations clear to my child”. It’s much less dramatic than that.

The reality is that we reinforce gender differences and expectations every day without even meaning to, through observational learning processes.

Think about your own life. Are there chores and activities that seem to fall along gender lines? Taking the bins out, doing the ironing and cooking, for example.

I doubt there was a discussion in which you divided up the chores based on gender. It probably just “became habit”. As such you never really questioned it – much like gender expectations in children.

Children are exposed to gender differences and expectations from the moment they are born. Over time this information is internalised to inform their understanding of how the world works – with early understandings about gender differences and expectations emerging by age three.

Helping this process along is the way we (often indadvertently) reinforce gendered behaviours, by providing approval for those behaviours that are gender-consistent (eg, praising a boy for not crying when he is hurt), and disapproval for those that are not (eg, discouraging rough-and-tumble play for a girl).

This means that by the time they achieve the concept of gender constancy by around age six to seven, their understanding of gender differences and expectations are also well established.

Kids are incredibly fast learners – even when we don’t realise that teaching has taken place.

Complicating this is that children filter information according to what their brain can make sense of.

Pink bike = girl’s toy? 

At age three to four, children demonstrate very “black-and-white” thinking – things are good or bad, right or wrong. What this means about gender is that they think in terms of “girl or boy”, and categorise their world (eg toys, clothes, activities) accordingly.

If this type of thinking was shown in an adult, who has more flexible thinking patterns – they can see shades of grey – it would be considered sexist. In kids of this age, it’s normal.

In and of itself, this is not a problem. It’s a normal developmental process. The problem arises when expectations about gender and gender differences lead to gender inequality.

Gender inequality has been shown to increase the risk of gender-based violence.

Proponents argue that this is where the Respectful Relationship program comes into play.

By providing an environment in which gender equality is both taught and modelled, it is argued that beliefs about gender and gender differences can be changed to support more respectful relationships with others from a young age, and decrease the risk of sexist and violent behaviour in the future.

If we’re talking about educating four-year-olds about this issue, it’s really more about what they see than what we say.

They don’t need to know what sexism is – the fact is, they won’t understand it if you try.

What is important is that we promote respect for all, without pathologising normal developmental processes. It’s okay that young boys like to play with boys, and girls like to play with girls; that boys like to play with trucks, and girls like to play with dolls. It’s not sexist, it’s a normal part of growing up.

So, can young children knowingly be sexist?

The fact that a four-year-old has a basic understanding of gender differences and expectations, and behaves according to this knowledge, is not the same as deliberately engaging in sexist behaviour. It simply reflects what they have seen, and what they are able to understand.

Their intention is to make sense of their world and how they fit in it – not to hurt or disempower others.

In a world where actions speak louder than words, it is not what you say but what you do that will shape your child’s gender expectations. Model and promote gender equality.

They may not know what sexist behaviour is at four, but this way they’ll be less likely to demonstrate it at 14.

This article was written by Dr. Kimberley Norris [Senior Lecturer in Psychology, University of Tasmania]