Preschool, executive functions and oral language as predictors of literacy and numeracy skills in first grade
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Preschool is known to prepare children for formal school. Studies worldwide have shown that children who attend preschool perform better than those who do not attend preschool in early years. There is some evidence that preschool curriculums that incorporate executive functions yield better results in literacy and numeracy in early school. Studies have also shown that oral language skills predict literacy attainment in primary school years. It is not known however, whether preschool prepares children to perform better in literacy and numeracy skills in the first grade in Zambia. This study, therefore, sought to establish the predictive role of preschool, executive functions and oral language in literacy and numeracy in the first grade in Lusaka Zambia. Specifically, the study sought to establish the extent to which preschool prepares children for learning to read and numeracy in first grade when social economic status (SES) and intelligence are controlled. In addition, the study examined whether preschool is beneficial for the development of executive functions (EF) like working memory and inhibitory skills as well as whether preschool stimulates reading, writing and numeracy through executive functions. The study further assessed whether preschool may interfere with learning to read in first grade if children do not speak Nyanja at home and depend on school for learning to read as well as learning the language of instruction (Nyanja).The study utilised a quasi-experimental design as children with and without preschool were assessed within the school setting. Eighteen schools took part in the study. The target sample per school was twelve (12) pupils, giving a total of 216. Out of these, 45 per cent were boys and 55 per cent girls (98 without preschool and 118 with preschool). Children were tested individually at the start of Grade one (Phase I). Follow-up testing (Phase II) commenced approximately seven months after the initial testing was completed. Hundred and ninety seven (197) of the children in the original sample were tested in Phase II. The tests were administered in Nyanja (the language of instruction in first grade) in Lusaka.To assess early literacy skills, the Basic Skills Assessment Tool (BASAT) was used. In addition to word recognition and text comprehension, the BASAT includes tests to assess basic skills like letter knowledge, phonemic awareness and short-term memory. Executive function skills were assessed using the pencil taping test, the Stroop-like test and the BRIEF. Familiarity with language was tested by eliciting a narration from each child and the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test measured receptive vocabulary. Pattern Reasoning (Kauffman Test Battery for Children) was utilised to measure general intelligence, while information processing was measured using the RAN. A variety of methods were used to analyse the data including, correlations, t-test, factorial anova and multi-level regression. Results revealed that pupils who went to preschool did not outperform pupils who did not go to preschool in first grade. On the contrary, they performed worse than those that never went to preschool. Children with preschool had a head start in alphabetic skills compared to children without preschool in the first grade but on all other literacy and numeracy tests, there were no effects in favour of children who went to preschool. In terms of executive functions, the study revealed that executive functions do predict literacy and numeracy skills. Specifically, working memory and inhibitory control predict literacy and numeracy skills over and above other executive functions. However, preschool did not promote executive functions. But, it was established that executive functions are better predictors of numeracy than literacy. The study further revealed that oral language is important for performance in literacy skills. The study revealed that linguistic diversity may explain delays of children who attend preschool in the first grade. Children are taught in English in preschool but in a local language, Nyanja when they proceed to first grade. This theory is in line with the finding that children with the most confusing language situation, the non Nyanja speakers, were lowest performers. Non Nyanja speakers speak another language at home, learnt English in preschool and need to learn a third language, Nyanja, in first grade. The study recommends that the Zambian Government should assess the quality of preschools to ensure that the curriculum has preparatory activities for literacy and numeracy skills, alphabet knowledge, phonological awareness, counting and rhyming. It is also recommended that executive function stimulating activities be part of preschool. In addition, schools should use the same language in preschool and first grade.
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