White privilege and literacy

Yesterday I read a facebook post written by an educator and grandmother who was lamenting the idea of "push-down" academics. She stated that her granddaughter had not been exposed to early writing, phonics or any sort of academic program in preschool and had learned to read and write on her own in kindergarten. This is a lovely idea and often touted as the best way for children to really learn and understand the important skills that they need in age appropriate ways.



However, this was an obviously educated and dedicated grandmother and from the post, it seemed like the child's parents were well-educated as well. Bringing up a child in a print-rich environment, with lots of quality conversation in English, plenty of scaffolding and adults who ensured that there were opportunities for her to "discover" literacy on her own is a nice idea, but it seems to me that this is steeped in "white privilege" and economic privilege. Unfortunately many children do not have access to this kind of idyllic environment.


At my centre I have seen children from all kinds of backgrounds and we do not have a single child who can access the kind of environment described above. We do not have a single native-English speaking child at our service. Most of our families speak limited english. Many of our families have not been to school for more than one generation. Many of our families don't even have an understanding of western culture or how Australian society works. We have had to guide them on how to catch a train or bus, how to access benefits, when and how to reach out to doctors and many more basic needs. Many times we have had to explain what "underwear" is and guide parents to where and why they should purchase this.


In the midst of all this, with limited resources, how is their child supposed to keep up with the granddaughter described above? With parents with little education, limited resources and who are busy trying to understand the world in which we live, how is the child supposed to "discover" reading and writing on their own? Most of these children enter the school system well behind their privileged peers and stay behind for most of their life.



The only chance for such children is not only extended access to early childhood services, but also targeted teaching in terms of literacy, numeracy and other academic skills. For some reason, in early childhood we always talk about social/emotional and academic skills as if you can only have one or the other. We tend to place social skills and emotional self-regulation above academic skills instead of side by side, where I believe they belong. As one skill increases, so do the others. Once their basic needs are met (see Maslow's Hierarchy of needs), then we can focus on the higher order needs that include executive function and academic skills.


As teachers and educators, I believe that we have a duty to ensure that children from disadvantaged backgrounds not only keep up with their peers, but indeed, excel in their academic education. For many families, this is their only opportunity to break the cycle of poverty or rise above their disadvantage. This is not to say that we need to be only "instructional" when we teach. We need to ensure that all teaching is play-based and fun for children, otherwise it defeats the purpose. We want children to have a love of learning for life. This includes being confident when they start school, and staying that way throughout the years.


For this, though, we need to be intentional when we are planning our day. We need to have some goals in mind including academic goals of being able to recognise letters, numbers, colours, etc. Children could be with us for 10 or 12 hours a day as opposed to 6 hours a day at primary school. If you include school assemblies, lunch times and other activities during a school day, we have much more opportunity to incorporate academic teaching into our day. Making it part of our routines and having the freedom to structure and plan our day to reflect our teaching means that we can easily "sneak" learning into fun activities and projects during their time with us.


I have seen many kindergarten teachers struggling to find the time to ensure that each child in their class learns to read and write. If we can make things easier for the child and the teacher without it impacting the child's well being or our time and effort, then why not? Why would we not try and open up the world of reading to children as soon as they are able? Once they can read, they can see the world in a new way. They suddenly can make sense of all the signs and symbols around them and discover stories for themselves. Why would we deny them these tools?


For now, I see that most research into early childhood comes from predominantly male, western European or American theorists. Let us reflect on whose research or theories we are basing our pedagogy on. Let us look at each child in context and consider whether the research is privileging one type of child or family over another. What are the social justice implications of particular theories or pedagogy?



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