School readiness is a controversial concept. In Australia, Commonwealth and State governments expect children to be ready for school at around 5 years of age – regardless of their developmental history or family background.
What is school readiness?
Most research has focused on two categories of abilities educators expect kids to possess when they start school:
- Intellectual and language abilities, e.g. concentration, attention, understanding spoken language and talking, and pre-literacy skills like a knowledge of sounds and letters (later-developing phonological awareness skills); and
- Social skills, e.g. abilities to interact effectively with peers and teachers, to behave in class, and to persist in tasks.
Other studies have looked at factors like gender, poverty, family dynamics and parent education levels, which we know can affect a child’s school readiness (e.g. Thomas, 2006).
Why does school readiness matter?
Two main reasons:
- Children’s capacities at school entry are predictive of academic outcomes (e.g. Snow, 2006).
- Early success at school is a strong indicator of ongoing and future success (e.g. Prior et al, 1993).
Children most at risk of not being ready for school
- Boys: studies show boys tend to mature later, and are often behind girls in the first few years, although they generally catch up later.
- Children from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds.
- Children with a language impairment.
- Children with below average cognitive abilities.
- Children with behavioural and emotional problems.
Of course, many children fit into more than one of these categories. Children with a language impairment are at a significant risk of not being ready for school. This is because language skills support a child’s readiness to learn.
So what are the most important predictors of school readiness?
In a recent large study (cited below), Margot Prior and colleagues found that the most influential variables to predict school readiness were:
- child language competencies (listening and talking); and
- pre-literacy capacities, specifically letter knowledge and phoneme awareness (knowledge of sounds).
Interestingly, these cognitive and language abilities were much more predictive of school readiness than social skills, behavioural problems, or even being read to at home. Many school readiness programs and checklists focus on social skills and teaching parents to read to their kids at home.
This study suggests that some of these programs and checklists should be rethought since “early acquisition of letter and sound knowledge, plus language enrichment experiences appear much more likely to make a difference in successful transition to school…although reading to children may add to the language knowledge”.
Improving a child’s language skills before school can have lasting positive effects into pre-school and beyond – especially for children at risk. Parents and pre-school teachers (with help from speech pathologists and other health professionals) should target language teaching and pre-literacy skills like sound and letter knowledge. Systemic instruction in language and literacy skills for pre-schoolers can enhance their success in the first years of school.
Principal source: Prior, M., Bavin, E., & Ong., B. (2011). Predictors of school readiness in five- to -six-year-old children from an Australian longitudinal community sample. Education Psychology, 31(1), 3-16.
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Hi there, I’m David Kinnane.
Principal Speech Pathologist, Banter Speech & Language
Our talented team of certified practising speech pathologists provide unhurried, personalised and evidence-based speech pathology care to children and adults in the Inner West of Sydney and beyond, both in our clinic and via telehealth.