By CELA on 5 Feb, 2021

The Abecedarian Approach places a priority on high-quality adult-child interactions and children’s language acquisition.

Research has shown that the approach can improve IQ and stimulate development in multiple domains. These interactions can even work to counteract the negative impact of growing up in disadvantaged circumstances.

This week we speak with two Australian educators who are using the 3a Abecedarian Approach Australia and share where you can undertake training.

An approach built on robust research and positive outcomes

The Abecedarian Approach grew out of the Abecedarian Project, a longitudinal study that was conducted in the United States during the 1970s.

The study measured many aspects of children’s growth and development at frequent intervals in their first 5 years. Compared to the control group, the children who were exposed to the approach had more positive outcomes in a wide range of areas including IQ, academic results, university participation, mental and physical health.

The Abecedarian Approach Australia – 3a

The Melbourne Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne is at the forefront of Abecedarian Approach Australia (3a) strategy and offers specialist 3a training.

According to Melbourne Graduate School of Education, 3a was developed after an international literature review of the findings of model early childhood programs and approaches, including the Abecedarian studies, and selected as the approach most relevant to supporting very young children living in disadvantaged circumstances, including poverty and social marginalisation.

The approach consists of four elements:

  1. Language priority
  2. Learning games
  3. Conversational reading
  4. Enriched caregiving

It can be delivered through early education and care centres, preschools and playgroups – from birth until the start of school.

Because it is vitally important to understand local context when seeking to implement any model program successfully, the core components of the Abecedarian Approach were reviewed and customised through sequential projects and activities that explored and adjusted content details to suit local conditions. (Source: Melbourne Graduate School of Education)

For example, the LearningGames® were redeveloped in consultation with Aboriginal communities through an adaptation and trialling process led by the Northern Territory Department of Education.

Each of the elements of 3a has been aligned with contemporary Australian Early Childhood policy, including The Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) and the National Quality Standard (NQS ).

Ongoing research is being conducted in Australia, including with Indigenous children and their communities, in order to contribute to evidence on the effectiveness of the program as an approach to advance young children’s learning and development outcomes.

Using language to enrich caregiving

According to the University of Melbourne, language is a focus of the program because it allows children to organise their thoughts and explain their ideas, the means to express their feelings and the tools they need to interact with peers and adults.

Stacey Bass, an Abecedarian Approach practitioner, says that children benefit from the approach because they gain more interaction and have an opportunity to widen their use and understanding of vocabulary. They develop memory, understand number concepts, and learn shapes and colours.

Stacey provides examples of ways educators can use the Abecedarian Approach to build language:

  • Ask the child if they can do something and then talk to them about what they did
  • Read books, asking the child if they can see or find something in the book
  • Point out an object in a book, ask the child if they can show you that object, and then ask what it is called

“It gets to the point where it just comes naturally, talking about and naming things from the colour of clothes they are wearing to what they are eating, creating conversations, and asking questions,” explains Stacey.

Lesley Hodson has recently completed her 3a Abecedarian practitioner training. She is employed at an Abecedarian-focused centre, and uses the approach every day. She works with a group of children aged four-to-five years.

Lesley had never heard of the Abecedarian Approach until she started working at her current service. She says, “I love the way the focus is on language. Without an understanding of language, children can struggle to learn.”

The educators at Lesley’s service use language to enrich the caregiving, including explaining everything they do to the children.

We have recently started up our worm farm again, and we are constantly asking and explaining what food the worms do and do not eat,” says Lesley.

We try to expand the children’s’ language by using words that they might not normally use. For example, when it came to our worm farm, we discussed the worm castings. When we use a word that we think they might not be familiar with, we ask questions to find out their knowledge base and then expand and explain on a level they understand.

Conversational reading

The 3a Approach encourages the adult and child to go ‘back and forth’ in conversation. There are three main levels to try – the first level is seeing, then showing, then saying.

“We have a conversational reading every day with every child,” says Lesley. “One thing that I really like about the 3a approach is that a child is never too young to be read to, never too young to engage in a conversation with their parents or caregiver, and never too young to transfer language to.”

Stacey explains that children learn that books have beginnings and endings. Children “gain an understanding of the way and direction a book is read which in turn can help them understand which direction to write their words”.

Family involvement

Working with families is a core part of the Abecedarian approach. The program aims to support families to grow in confidence as their children’s first educator.

Stacey says, “families can benefit by learning to engage with their children in a similar way, watching their children become more confident in what they do and say.”

A simple game used in the Abecedarian Approach is talking with children about their likes and dislikes.

Lesley says, “families benefit from having the confidence to share the learning games with their children, and while the games might seem like common sense to us as educators, they may be new and useful tools for the parents.”

Where you can undertake training

The Melbourne Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne provides three levels of Abecedarian Approach training: practitioner, affiliate trainer and coach. Training for organisations is also available.

The training includes resources and supports early childhood educators in implementing teaching strategies within their setting.

Nawarddeken Academy – the 3a Abecedarian approach in practice

Every morning, three hours a day, five days a week, children attend the Kaldurrk Early Learning Program with their mothers.

The children and their mothers come to a balabbala – a safari tent that is a welcoming space full of learning resources.

They are guided through a series of learning games and enriched care based on the 3a Abecedarian model.

“Mums are supporting children with literacy, numeracy, games and enriched caregiving,” says Olga Scholes, Executive Officer Nawarddeken Academy, “the children have playtime at home with the other children, so when they come they have that special one on one time with mum and really focus on the learning activities.”

The program is a response to challenges educating children in a remote community.

Low and transient numbers of children can make conventional education models inaccessible.

New ways of learning and teaching – that are evidence-based but flexible to community needs – can help fill a gap and ensure that all children can benefit from early learning.

The Nawarddeken Academy is a registered independent school in west Arnhem Land. It oversees the early learning program in an in-kind capacity.

The Early Learning Program was developed to meet a community need for early childhood education. A preschool would not be financially viable, with only a handful of children under school age in the community at any one time.

An innovative model, funded collaboratively by government and philanthropic sources, was developed to ensure that young children could access early childhood education.

The program is staffed by a roster of daluk (women) who share responsibility for planning and delivery of early learning activities, supported by Nawarddeken Academy staff.

The program is based on the Families as First Teachers model. The families as First Teachers (FaFT) program is an early learning and family support program for remote Indigenous families.

The model delivers benefits not only to children but their parents too. Mothers are intrinsically involved in their children’s learning, with some mothers paid for leadership roles in the program. The focus is also on professional learning for mothers.

A range of professional learning opportunities have been provided to the mothers since the program began, including visits to early childhood centres in Darwin, access to courses, and visiting early childhood experts.

The program is making a difference to children and their families. “The students we have had even a year, have shown better school readiness skills than those who haven’t.”

Despite this success in preparing children for school – the children are deemed to have not attended preschool as the program doesn’t meet the strict definition.

And because of its innovative setting and model, securing ongoing funding for a much-needed program remains a challenge.

Further reading

3a- Abecedarian Approach Australia

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