Episode 104      16 min 34 sec
Evidence-based early childhood education: the Abecedarian approach

Early childhood educator Dr Joe Sparling discusses the Abecederian method, an evidence-based approach to improving learning environments for the very young. With host Jennifer Cook.

"For the children with greatest need, we want to have government programs to begin from the very beginning, because those children and families need support from the beginning." -- Dr Joseph Sparling





           



Dr Joseph Sparling
Dr Joseph Sparling

Dr Joseph Sparling is Visiting Professor at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne. He is also a Fellow at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is a Research Professor at Georgetown University.

Dr Sparling is a an early childhood educator, former school teacher and principal. He is the first author of LearningGames®, The Abecedarian Curriculum, Partners for Learning, and Conversation Books, educational resources that have been used widely in the United States and abroad.

Credits

Host: Jennifer Cook
Producers: Kelvin Param, Eric van Bemmel
Series Creators: Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param
Audio Engineer: Gavin Nebauer
Voiceover: Nerissa Hannink

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Evidence-based early childhood education: the Abecedarian approach

VOICEOVER
Welcome to Up Close, the research, opinion and analysis podcast from the University of Melbourne, Australia.

JENNIFER COOK
Hello, I'm Jennifer Cook. Thanks for joining us. Just what are your memories of kindergarten or pre-school? Finger painting, building with blocks, cutting and pasting? Now ask yourself how important those early years in the sandpit were to your social and intellectual development. According to Dr Joe Sparling, an early childhood educator and part of a team who developed a series scientific studies spanning 30 years, that playtime was crucial to your success or otherwise as an adult. Dr Sparling is a proponent of the Abeccedarian approach, which began back in the 1970s when 111 infants were enrolled in what was to become one of the most important longitudinal studies on how enriched early learning programs affect children's life chances.
Dr Sparling is Visiting Professor at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, here at the University of Melbourne. He is also a Fellow at the Frank Porter Graham child development institute of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a former school teacher and principal.
Joe is in Australia at the invitation of the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, and the University of Melbourne.
Dr Sparling, thank you so much for joining us.

JOE SPARLING
Thank you Jennifer, it's good to be here.

JENNIFER COOK
I'd like to begin by reading a quote of yours.  You say in the first five years of life education and care giving cannot and should not be seen as separate activities.  Could you expand on that for us?

JOE SPARLING
Well, education and care are important because care happens all the time and if you want to make sure that education happens, you need to link it with care.  That kind of guarantees that it's going to occur in the natural rhythms of the day.  Usually parents don't think of themselves particularly as educators.  They don't have separate time for teaching and so if they can see these educational experiences as being really a part of their ongoing interaction with children, then that really makes it easy and rather obvious.

JENNIFER COOK
So this is a good time to ask you what is the Abecedarian approach?  I know it has four main elements.

JOE SPARLING
The Abecedarian approach is something that we developed actually in these longitudinal studies to try to make sure that children who were in need, who were not predicted to do well in public school once they got to kindergarten or later on in school, to make sure that they had the same advantages or as near as we could make it to other children who have more resources in their homes and parents with higher education.  So the Abecedarian approach is something that helps children in need to do better in school and it has four parts as you mentioned.

JENNIFER COOK
Tell us what those four parts are?

JOE SPARLING
Well, the first one is something we call learning games.  It's a series of 200 games that go right from birth up to age 60 months.  Now that's the period when you're just turning five and you're going to go into your prep year or to what in the US we call that your actual kindergarten, you call the year earlier kindergarten.  Those games are something you can do in care giving as I just said and you can also do them at special little times that the parent and child have together. 
The second component is conversational reading.  This is a particular way of reading books so that the child has a really active role to play.  The third element is language priority, which means that you think about your language as probably the most important single thing that you do in every interaction with the child.  The fourth element is enriched care giving, which really goes back to the first point we made that care giving can be enriched with educational content.

JENNIFER COOK
This is what you've developed out of the Abecedarian approach, but let's take you back now to how you got there.  Who did you choose these studies and why and what did you find, because it hasn't just been one study has it?

JOE SPARLING
No.  It's been quite a series of studies now and in the first study we chose children who were in the greatest likelihood of not succeeding in school.  They had a multiple set of factors in their families that don't predict well for school achievement.  For example, having a teenage mother or the father being absent in the home or having low maternal education or having other difficulties or issues that are going on in the family.  If you have a number of those factors in your family, the odds are lower that your child is going do well once he gets to school and it's because of all these other pressures that are happening, so that the parenting doesn't quite go on as well and as smoothly and in such an enriched way.

JENNIFER COOK
And you are part of a team of researchers.  Could you tell us what your role was and how you went about it?

JOE SPARLING
Yes.  My role was basically to think seriously and to try to "invent" the educational program.  By the way, we didn't really invent anything quite new.  We took things that had already been in the literature and in people's minds and we kind of refined those and put those together.  The lead scientific investigator on all these studies is Dr Craig Ramey, who's at the University of Georgetown in the US and he and quite a large number of other scientists were the brains behind these and I was the educational leader in the program.

JENNIFER COOK
This is Up Close coming to you from the University of Melbourne, Australia.  I'm Jennifer Cook and our guest today is Dr Joe Sparling and we're talking about early childhood development and a particular approach, something called the Abecedarian approach.  Now Dr Sparling, let's talk about the impact on low birth weight babies in your study and those of teen mothers.  What did it reveal?

JOE SPARLING
Well, this is again one of our studies.  We had over 900 babies that were low birth weight and we found that children across a wide spectrum of socioeconomic backgrounds benefited from this program, but the very highest level educated mums like college educated mums, their children didn't benefit much at all because they were already going to do quite well.  But if you had only a little college education or you were a high school graduate mum or you hadn't graduated from high school, then those children benefited to quite a strong degree.

JENNIFER COOK
So Joe, just what has been the value of a study like this that spans 30 years?

JOE SPARLING
Well, first of all it lets us answer are these results long lasting results?  That's the only way you can find that out and also by starting early it tells us how early do the results begin to be evident.

JENNIFER COOK
It's gone on for 30 years.  Tell us about some of these adults who have come through this program, what are you seeing?

JOE SPARLING
Well, we see that there is a higher rate of graduation from college for example.  For the children who have not had this program you have about 13.7 per cent going to college at age 21 as opposed to 39.5 per cent.  That's about a three-fold increase so that's one of the most important ones.  Then at age 30 you find that the level of jobs that these young people, young adults now have just from a program that was way back in pre-school, birth to age five, are quite different.

JENNIFER COOK
So look, how receptive are childhood educators and authoritative bodies such as governments towards this approach and how widely is it being implemented?

JOE SPARLING
It's not really being used very widely.  Most people believe they're using it.  They adopt portions of it and that's one of the problems that public policy faces, I think, is if you adopt pieces of a program or some general ideas of simply saying for example, let's have better quality childcare and we'll get these same results, we're not really sure that that works.  So one of the things that I'm talking to people about as I visit Australia, is how to do this whole program and do it faithfully so that you will get some similar results.

JENNIFER COOK
You're saying it is crucial that it is followed from A to B to C to D, all four parts?

JOE SPARLING
As far as we know, it is crucial that you do the whole program because that's the way results have gotten before and every time we find that if we measure how much you do, more is better, it actually produces a stronger result.  So the notion of doing just a piece of it is not very wise, I believe.

JENNIFER COOK
It's interesting because you're actually in a very strong position to say this, after having been involved in this research in a number of studies over 30 years.  It's not as if you've developed a philosophy and you're a zealot just pushing a barrow.

JOE SPARLING
Oh yes, this is much more than a philosophy.  This is a kind of proven approach.  By the way we call it an approach.  It's not a curriculum.  You can use other curricula.  You can use the emergent curriculum that the people in Australia and other parts of the world actually like, which means that the local teacher and the child have a lot of input into what happens.  But this program helps the leader, the instructional leader, the director of a centre or the teachers really monitor their program and be sure that certain quality elements are really there and in a strong way.

JENNIFER COOK
Which leads me to the question, just how well do you believe the Abecedarian approach can adjust to different communities, cultures, socioeconomic backgrounds?

JOE SPARLING
First of all, we have used it with the most needy families that we could find so we began from that point of view.  It can be used across to families in general and families that have more affluence and more resources, but it's particularly an approach for families that need some support and who have some difficulties in their lives.  So that's where I personally am trying to talk to particular governmental groups and to professional organisations about this.

JENNIFER COOK
This is Up Close coming to you from the University of Melbourne, Australia.  I'm Jennifer Cook and our guest today is Dr Joe Sparling.  We're talking about early childhood development and a particular approach, the Abecedarian approach.  Now Dr Sparling, in recent times very young children are growing up in an environment that's bursting with digital and electronic stimulation and there's perhaps less opportunity for physical activity.  How has this factored into your thinking on best approaches for early childhood?

JOE SPARLING
Well, children learn by doing, and by doing in a very up close and personal way. The activities in the learning games, don't rely on any technology.  And they especially have an adult who enters in, in a sensitive way to the child's play.  So my feeling is that we can accomplish all of the things that the learning games in the Abecedarian approach accomplish without technology and in fact, if too much time is spent on the computer or watching television it takes away from that experience.

JENNIFER COOK
Dr Sparling, with this Abecedarian approach you've spoken of readers and games and it is a whole approach.  Where can parents find out more about this?

JOE SPARLING
There's a site called mindnurture.com that has the five Abecedarian learning games books and by the way, there's a book for each year of life up for the first five years.  So that as a parent you can just choose the one that's right for your child, so that's the convenient aspect of the way this is available.

JENNIFER COOK
Do you have a lot of interested grandmothers get onto your site, I can imagine.  I can hear my mother already.

JOE SPARLING
Yes.  This is a favourite grandmother gift for daughters and daughter-in-laws.  It's a nice thing you can do for your offspring and for your grandchildren.  But we developed this particularly for centres and playgroups and people who do home visits, such as maternal and child health nurses so mostly professionals use this program, but parents can get it as well and that's one nice feature.

JENNIFER COOK
Joe, do parents who perhaps start at four years of age with these books, do they need to be concerned that they've missed out on key parts of the approach?

JOE SPARLING
Each year has its own value and you can start at any time.  In fact, in terms of learning you can start at my age.  There's nothing that says you have to start from the beginning.  But for the children with greatest need, we want to have government programs to begin from the very beginning, because those children and families need support from the beginning. So there's kind of two sides to the questions.  Any parent who has resources and other things they're doing, sure can jump in at any time but those of us who sponsor programs or have governmental responsibility, we need to start from the very beginning.

JENNIFER COOK
Now you're here in Australia to undertake some work with multifunctional Aboriginal centres.  Could you tell us a little bit about that experience?

JOE SPARLING
Well, I've had a really warm reception in those centres.  I've been really so far just in the centres in Victoria but I'm hopeful of coming back and going to centres in other states and the Northern Territory.  I really have enjoyed that interaction and those centres have strong needs.  They have children that, in fact, according to data do not do as well in school as the average children in Australia.  That's one of the things that they're concerned about that's one of the things that I hope as they use this program, they can help to close that gap of different achievement levels.

JENNIFER COOK
Dr Sparling, I'd like to close with asking you a more personal question.  You've been involved intensely in this research for more than 30 years helping and finding ways of improving educational opportunities for young children from a whole different range of backgrounds.  Just how has that been for you on a personal level?

JOE SPARLING
Well, it's a job that you almost shouldn't get paid for.  It's so satisfying and so rewarding and to see as we did recently, when the National Geographic filmed a segment on this, to see young adults who were tiny babies in this program and to see them successful in life and to know that without the program, they might have been in quite a different place, is really rewarding.  Many jobs have a lot of reward of them but I think I've got the best job in the world.

JENNIFER COOK
Thank you so much for your time today Dr Sparling.  It's been a pleasure.

JOE SPARLING
Thank you.

JENNIFER COOK
Relevant links, a full transcript and more info on this episode can be found at our website at upclose.unimelb.edu.au.  Up Close is brought to you by marketing and communications of the University of Melbourne, Australia.  Our producers for this episode were Kelvin Param and Eric van Bemmel.  Audio engineering is by Gavin Nebauer.  Up Close is created by Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param.  I'm Jennifer Cook, until next time good bye.

VOICEOVER
You've been listening to Up Close.  For more information visit upclose.unimelb.edu.au. Copyright 2010, the University of Melbourne.


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