In Giles Andreae's allegorical story "Giraffes Can't Dance," the gentle, self-conscious protagonist Gerald gets teased for his inability to dance. The story illustrates how some young students feel about letters and rhyming. At Northeastern University, we help children learn to "dance" not only in local Boston neighborhoods, but in South Africa as well.
Northeastern's Department of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology facilitates the Language Literacy Program in collaboration with the Boston Renaissance Public Charter School. In Northeastern's 10-year-old program, speech-language pathology graduate students lead biweekly language-based literacy groups for pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students identified as at risk for early literacy delays.
Pre- and post-program data show the program is making a difference: Results from the phonological assessment subtest of the Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals demonstrate that the program helps students develop their early literacy abilities and catch up to their typically developing classmates by the end of each school year.
Working as a clinical instructor in the Language Literacy Program in Boston, I saw clearly that not only were the outcomes successful, but that the program was easily adaptable to different settings. I was raised in a farming district outside Cape Town, South Africa, and was acutely aware of the need for early literacy programs in my native country.
After the death of my mother—a passionate advocate of reading and learning—in South Africa, I decided to look for a nonprofit foundation that would support the development and implementation of an early literacy program.
Five years ago I developed a working relationship with the Darling Trust in Darling, South Africa, and initiated a language literacy program with one instructor and eight children. The program now has multiple instructors and 70 children.
The program strives to provide an atmosphere of supported learning to foster early literacy abilities and self-confidence. Program components include:
- Group storybook reading emphasizing book orientation; story outcome prediction; and novel lexicon, syntax and pragmatics.
- Art, movement and music activities reinforcing early literacy abilities and confidence.
- Literacy-related activities addressing receptive language, expressive language, and early reading and writing skills.
We shared the Northeastern program's storybook list with the South African program. Many of the same books are available there, and a local independent bookstore provided the books at cost. We were delighted to learn that "Giraffes Can't Dance" was available in Afrikaans (one of the native languages of South Africa)! The groups in Boston and Darling have enjoyed choreographing their own dances after reading this book.
The Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals has been translated into Afrikaans by Rita Uys, clinical instructor of the South African program. Anecdotal data from that program support the same positive outcomes: When comparing students, teachers at both schools repeatedly comment on the significant delays that persist in students who have not been enrolled in the program.
The program is easily replicated:
- The LLP group may be run by various educational specialists and clinicians-in-training, including classroom teachers and speech-language pathologists.
- The groups are designed for two to 10 children with one or more specialists.
- Group materials (for example, paper and glue sticks) are readily available in school settings.
- Lesson plans for one storybook can easily be adapted to others.
- Early literacy goals may be adapted for different groups. For example, K1 students "will match three to four sound symbols to pictures" and K2 students "will match seven to eight sound symbols in the initial and final position of words."
The model allows instructors to assess graduate students' clinical skills in a real-world setting and allows graduate students to experience working in school settings with teachers and clinical peers.
Over the past 10 years in Boston and five years in South Africa, we have shown that early literacy skills can be developed in a user-friendly and fun, integrated model. As Gerald the giraffe needed encouragement to listen to the music all around him to learn to dance, so our early learners need encouragement to listen to the sounds all around them to learn to read. Yes, Gerald, giraffes CAN dance!
Therese O'Neil Pirozzi, ScD, CCC-SLP, associate professor and program director in the Department of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology at Northeastern University, also contributed to this article.