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Weerachart Kilenthong: When preschool children don’t know the alphabets

Weerachart Kilenthong: When preschool children don’t know the alphabets

American economist and Nobel laureate James J. Heckman’s study on early childhood development found that a high quality primary education can reduce inequality. Investing in young children aged from birth up to six years would yield a return worth 7 to 12 times more in later years. Speaking economically, the earlier the investment, the higher the return.

Weerachart Kilenthong, Dean of Thai Chamber of Commerce University’s School of Early Childhood Education, said if disadvantaged children receive support early in life, they will grow up to be high-skilled adults. They will become more capable of contributing to society and boosting the economy, which eventually will reduce inequality in society.

Kraiyos Patrawart, Deputy Managing Director of Equitable Education Fund (EEF), asked how prepared Thai children are before entering Grade 1 in school. He also asked where the level of their capabilities would stand if compared province by province.

These questions were posed at the Equitable Education Conference as a starting point to a discussion on equitable education and an impact from a proper investment – looking for an answer to how an efficient early childhood investment could happen, and how it should be accomplished.

Over the past three years, the EEF and the Thai Chamber of Commerce University have conducted a survey on school readiness of 13,000 preschool children in 25 provinces to assess their cognitive and non-cognitive skills, family backgrounds, and school backgrounds. The goal was to identify the root of the problems they were facing.

Weerachart, who led the survey effort, said this assessment might look similar to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). In a way, it was much the same as the PISA, but conducted on a smaller scale only with younger children.

It tested the children with simple questions. For math and leanguage  cskills, they would be asked if they know the number 1 to 9. By knowing them, it doesn’t only mean they can correctly pronounce the digits, but they must be able to immediately identify them. They would also be asked if they know the Thai alphabets to test their literacy skills. It would be straightforward, such as showing pictures of five digits and seeing if the children know all of them.

However, the results were surprising. Over 20% of the children tested in many provinces did not know the numbers they saw at all. That is a worrying situation.

The literacy skills were no better. After reading a story to the children and asking them to answer five questions about it, only around 30% of the young participants in several provinces could answer less than two questions correctly.

The last assessment was about memory. The children would be asked to look at numbers twice, memorise them and recite them a while later. Weerachart said while the test couldn’t be simpler, the children’s performance scores were just about 3.4 to 3.5. Compared to the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth’s scores, children aged 6 to 8 would make 5.0 on average.

“In conclusion, I think there’s a sign telling us that a large number of preschool children have relatively low levels of skill in mathematics, literacy and memory,” he said. “I’d like to emphasise that these are fundamental skills, not advanced ones. We did not ask any complicated questions.”

The survey’s results were also compared with the panel data collected from smaller groups of children, such as 1,000 children who were being followed consistently throughout four to five years. Looking at their family backgrounds, it’s clear that children from poor families are less ready for schools than children from well-off families.

Weerachart said, while this is not surprising, it shows an urgency of the situation. Efforts are needed to examine what can be done to help these children become more ready.

“It may be because their families have only meagre income, therefore have less for investment. Poor children can’t afford educational toys, good learning aids. They don’t have books at home,” he said. “Or maybe because they are poverty-stricken, the parents don’t have enough time to take care of the children, or don’t know anything about good parenting. They might have a nutrition problem, or don’t have enough money to send their children to a proper school.”

All those assumptions are possible. Some might be facing a few of these obstacles, while some might be facing all of them. However, do people always have to succumb to these restrictions in life?

During the past five years, Weerachart has led a campaign called Reducing Inequality through Early Childhood Education (RIECE Thailand). It encourages childcare centres in rural areas to adopt a ‘High Scope’ learning structure that is based on three key procedures — planning, doing, and reviewing.

The principle was inspired by Piaget’s Theory, which sees that children’s intellectual development could be achieved through interactions and experiences. The theory believes children can learn from their own actions.

Nong Tok Paen Child Development Centre in Kalasin province is one of the three facilities participating in the RIECE Thailand project. It has been using the High Scope learning scheme for five years. Although without expensive learning aids, it has been successful in developing an active learning system that encourages children to make a decision, set a goal and take an action by themselves.

In each activity, the children learn by using their own senses and different kinds of learning tools appropriate to their ages. Even rice in a paddy can become a child’s learning experience outside a classroom.

Songkiat Larnponsaen, chief of Nong Tok Paen district administration, said children at the centre showed a significant development only three months after the new learning system was introduced.

“I think the development happened because of two main factors. First, the teachers improve themselves. They become more active. They adjust and always try to learn new things. Second, the children developed because of the activities from the curriculum. Before this system was applied, the centre used to be like a simple childcare place. Parents would drop their kids off and come to pick them up after work,” he said.

“Besides other kinds of investment that Thailand is making, I believe we should invest more into children. Local authorities have been investing in infrastructures and roads. Maybe it’s time they started to take a look at this effort too. It will build a strong base for our children to grow on. It’s like, if you sow a seed well, it will grow into a big tree. When the children grow well, they can give back to society more. They can become leaders.”

Weerachart displayed a comparative graph that shows the children who go through the High Scope curriculum possessing a stronger skill in every dimension. They have stronger gross motor and fine motor skills in their body movement. They show better language skills – both input and output. They also have greater sociability skills.

“I learned that good early childhood education can help disadvantaged children. A childcare centre in a rural area is actually able to help them. I think that’s important,” he said. “Many might think it’s impossible, because such facilities lack both resources and staff. However, we found that it can be done. Of course it’s not perfect, because we still need a better and more stable course of management.”

However, his definition of ‘management’ still needs to be figured out, whether it’s about resources, educational toys, good food, quality family time or proper parenting.

Weerachart admitted that he’s not sure which is more important.

“We still need a lot more studies to determine which kind of system would yield the most efficient result, enabling improvement for both productivity and reducing inequality simultaneously,” he said.

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