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Keeping track of early learning

A debate is raging in Norway on assessment and observation in schools. The Tras tool developed in part by the Reading Centre at the University of Stavanger has a key place in such activities.

Nursery school heads believe that monitoring, used properly, makes it easier for educators to identify children’s language development needs.That view has also been endorsed by Kristin Halvorsen, minister of education and research, in a recent White Paper on quality in preschool education. “Our goal with language assessment is to ensure that all children who need help in this area will be identified at an early stage,” that policy document stated.

Most Norwegian nursery schools assess language development, and this work largely involves using the TRAS tool (see facts about TRAS in the right column).

Support
“Feedback from preschool teachers indicates that it can be hard to monitor a child’s language development without such support,” says Åse Kari H Wagner. She is an associate professor at the Reading Centre (whose full name is the National Centre for Reading Education and Research) and one of the TRAS developers.

“It’s difficult to establish whether children actually understand the words they use, and whether deficiencies exist in vocabulary or pronunciation. “Much of children’s language competence lies not in what they say but in what they understand. It’s easy to be fooled by perfect pronunciation or by good and extrovert body language.”

She says that preschool teachers have the theoretical know-how to follow a child’s language development. But they may find this difficult in practice without a systematic tool.

“TRAS helps to identify the development stage or processes which the child should be in or know about,” says Cecilie Berg, head of education at Blomsterbyen nursery school in Trondheim. The tool is used here with three- to six-year olds, and for children younger than that should they require additional assessment.

“As an educator, I find TRAS a practical instrument which makes it easier to establish the development stage reached by the child right now,” explains Berg. “It helps me to identify what knowledge the child possesses in terms of skills, and possibly what the next stage in their development should be.”

Critical

TRAS is not without its critics. According to Solveig Østrem at Vestfold University College, it unilaterally emphasises children’s communication with adults rather than with each other. This means that language competence is reduced simply to accommodating to a set of norms defined by adults, she argues in a recent article. In her view, TRAS aims to identify special educational needs and assumes that it is possible to define a normal course of language development, and thereby what – and who – falls short.
Østrem feels that specifying a standard for normal development poses problems and a big risk that children are generally assessed from an inadequate perspective which creates too many deviants.

Wagner takes a different view, and emphasises that every child must be monitored ¬– quite simply in order to avoid overlooking anyone. “We want to identify those who’re struggling so we can do something about it at an early stage. Research shows that intervention then is much more effective than later action. The best option will be to give the child help when development would normally occur, at an age when the conditions for language learning are so good.”

Applied

Berg agrees that the use of an assessment tool can have its drawbacks. But these are a question of how it is applied rather than of the solution as such. “All observation tools can be used in both good and bad ways,” she notes. “Preschool teachers mustn’t go round with a form in their hands all day long. Its content must become ingrained. They’ll then be able to observe language development in an entirely different way than if they made no use of such a tool.”

Her nursery school has found that TRAS helps to strengthen staff knowledge of each child by providing a good overview of the children’s abilities and knowledge.

That in turn allows staff to forge even stronger ties to the child and to see their needs more clearly.

“Language stimulation and measures are the goal, not the actual observation in itself,” says Wagner.

 

Text: Trond Egil Toft and Alexandra Halsan
Translated by: Rolf E Gooderham

Girl plays with a preschool teacher

Tras provides a very useful tool for supporting preschool teachers.