Children's concepts of language concepts from the pre-primary education curriculum (survey results)
In this paper we present the results of an investigation of children's preconceptions about selected concepts from the linguistic field from the state curriculum for pre-primary education in the Slovak Republic. We analyse authentic responses of Roma children from marginalised Roma communities (MRC) and non-Roma children who do not come from MRC backgrounds.
Understanding a concept and its active use in verbal (sign) form is a competence built on participation in discourse, governed by rules or prescriptive norms. Concepts (words and signs) influence people in their activities. Language and thinking are inextricably linked because talking about thinking is the way we talk about discursive activity. To be able to think is to be a competent user of sign systems, i.e., to be able to use them correctly . The human capacity to understand that other people have minds of their own and may think differently, may believe different facts, may have different access to information. According to Bloom (2015), the acquisition of theory of mind is an important milestone in the process of so-called social understanding. In the context of language development, it is true that children's core competencies can hardly be explained unless we understand their perceptions of social phenomena and their ideas about these phenomena. Learning words is indeed a complex problem, but children do not solve it by some special mechanism. Contrary, words are learned through abilities that exist for other purposes. These include abilities such as concept acquisition, comprehension and memory skills. He goes on to say that these abilities are necessary but also sufficient. They become automatic in their use of words in a very short time. Children form words spontaneously, in different situations. This is most often in communication with peers and adults of close relationship .
The basis of a child's interactive living in culture, in human society, is communication through a certain linguistic code. The ability to use a conventional means of communication that is understandable to others provides the child with a variety of opportunities to influence the world around him. This means that the development of a child's communicative competence in language is fundamental to the acquisition of cultural literacy (and its modalities, e.g., mathematics, science, and others). The child learns language (maternal, national, foreign, sign language) gradually, as a system of sound, graphic and movement codes that denote meanings, phenomena, and relationships in the environment where he lives. He acquires language experiences and skills that enable him to think, communicate, solve problems, sort the world into categories, and recognize the connections of the components of life. Mastery of language is inseparable from social and cultural reality .
An overview of research into the current solution to the problem. In the following section, we present the research carried out in the field of children's vocabulary in understanding and explaining the meanings of words and their situational use in various communication contexts. The authors B. Kasáčová, M. Cabanová, S. Babjaková, D. Hanesová, M. Lipnická, J. Stehlíková and the authors I. Krnáčová. The results of qualitative research of spontaneous speech production of children and their pre-literate abilities at primary school, as well as the results of qualitative research of children's statements about concepts related to literacy obtained in the form of micro-interviews, are presented in the publication "Children on the Threshold of Education" (Kasáčová et al. 2017) . The studies of D. Slančová, J. Kessel, S. Kapalková and I. Bónová  postulate the methodological basis of research into the development of pragmatic functions, semantic categories, gestures, and the sound level of Slovak-speaking children. They have the character of methodological and personal case studies, ie they capture and analyse in detail a large amount of data from the transcripts of one child's speech. The human ability to understand that other people have their minds and may think of something else may believe other facts that they may have different access to information. According to Bloom (2015), mastering the theory of the mind is an important milestone in the process of so-called social understanding. About language development, children's key competencies are difficult to explain unless we understand their perceptions of social phenomena and their perceptions of these phenomena .
Objectives of the pre-research and characteristics of the investigation of children's preconcepts
The main aim of the pre-survey was to investigate the understanding of concepts from the content standards of the educational area. Language and Communication from the State Curriculum for Pre-primary Education in Kindergartens (2016) among children entering kindergarten at the end of their pre-primary education, i.e., children aged 6 and 7 years, respectively. The specific aim of the pre-survey was to identify the specifics of the understanding of concepts from the field of Language and Communication among Roma children attending kindergartens.
Children's preconceptions were explored through semi-structured interviews. In the semi-structured interviews, children were guided in a sequence of cognitive identification (understanding), explanation (application) and justification (evaluation) of the meaning of concepts. The interview questions structured the discussion of each concept. By analysing the content and performance standards of the educational area Language and Communication from the State Educational Program for Pre-primary Education in Kindergartens (2016), we selected 10 concepts, the understanding of which we considered crucial in the development of language and literacy. We selected the following concepts: book, magazine, reading, writing, story, conversation, question, poem, writer, library.
The questions for the semi-structured interviews were prepared in advance in the form of precise wording. We were inspired by Babiaková's methodical procedure (In: Kasáčová et al. 2017) Question: "What is it?" we ascertained understanding of the meaning of the term, then we ascertained understanding of the purpose of the term by asking, "What is it for?”. We prepared a question to explore the origin of the experience of the concept or to identify the source: "How do you know this?". We ascertained the rationale and evaluated the meaning of the concepts by asking: "What if it weren't?" .
When qualitatively evaluating the children's responses, we considered the semantic as well as the pragmatic meaning of the children's statements. At the beginning of the evaluation, we established criteria for understanding the meaning of the terms: – scientific concept correct origin of the word according to the dictionary, – pre-scientific concept (with an error), – naive misconcept (without rational logic), – incorrect or no meaning. Criteria for evaluation of experience we have established the following: – own experience, – shared experience, – no experience .
Structured interviews were conducted with children aged 5 years and 9 months to 6 years and 4 years in the month of March 2021 during one week from March 15 to March 20, 2021. The number of children who participated in the research was 24. Of these, 12 children came from marginalized Roma communities and 12 children who did not come from such a background. We contacted the headmistresses of 4 kindergartens, who also provided us with the professional staff who carried out the interviews. Two schools were rural and two were urban. One rural and one urban kindergarten are kindergartens attended only by Roma children. They are kindergartens situated close to settlements and are therefore catchment kindergartens for Roma children. We recorded the interviews on a dictaphone, then transcribed the interviews into prepared tables. We transcribed the answers of each child into a separate table. The individual answers were subjected to content analysis, categorized, and summarized in the tables. Some of the more comprehensive responses are presented in the following chapter. It should be noted that the interviews with Roma children were shorter due to the lack of interest in answering, especially if the child was unable to express himself. Therefore, if the child could not immediately describe a concept, the researcher asked a follow-up question, or a follow-up question to that concept, or asked about a different concept right away.
The term book was mostly described by the children as a concrete object. Some children pointed to books in the school library, on the shelf. Often, when describing the concept of a book, they gesticulated by drawing in imaginary books. When asked What is a book? they answered by describing what a book looks like, what shape it might take. "Like a cover that has pages in it and those pages can have pictures on them and just letters" (Melinda 6y 3m), "Like a rectangle where you have some pictures and you read" (Pauline 5y 7m). Most children answered that it was a thing to read. E.g., "Such a thing to read from" (Romanka 6 y 0m). Roma children answered I don't know when asked what a book is. One Roma child pointed to the books on the shelf "There's a book over there, there's a book over there" (Lilianka 5y 10m) and one Roma boy described a prayer book: 'What about when you go to church and sing at a funeral' (Jakub 6r 1m). One boy drew an imaginary rectangle. However, when prompted by the teacher, he did not describe it only approved her response by saying "Yeah" to show the rectangle. To the question What is the purpose of the book for most of us children answered that for reading. Melinda (6y 3m) said "To learn about something. Also, we can read it at night to fall asleep". Roma children when asked: "What is the purpose of a book?" mostly answered: "to read". One boy elaborated: "To read for school"(Jakub, 6y 1m). Not a single Roma child described the informative and cognitive function of books. Three girls stated that they serve to learn something. "That we could know the colours" (Romanka, 6y 0m). When asked about the source of information about the book – books, children who do not come from an MRC background answered: "From home" (Radko, 6y 5m), "At home we have" (Šimonko 5y 7m). They also said that their parents and teachers in the kindergarten told them about books. Melinda (6y 3m) specified: "We learned about books sometimes in March". One girl said that she had made it up about books. Roma children said that they heard about the book in kindergarten. Alexík (5y 9m) said: 'Well Marián (note: Marián is a teaching assistant in the kindergarten) told us, because he always reads'. Two Roma children mentioned their older siblings as a source of information about books. One Roma child said that he knew about books from the library, although he had not been there. However, he answered correctly where the library was located. They evaluated the term a book by answering the question What would happen if there were no books. "Then we would be bored without a book." (Pavlínka 5 y 7 m). The children evaluated that without books we would not know how to read, write or we would not know anything. "So, we wouldn't know how to write" (Romanka 6 y 0m). "We wouldn't know how to read" (Natálka 5 y 7m). "So, we wouldn't know anything" (Esterka 5 y 9m). The children also stated that if there were no books, there would be no fairy tales and they would not be able to read them to us and they would not be able to fall asleep afterwards. "Then there are no books. Then parents or teachers can't read us fairy tales" (Karolínka 5 y 11m). "We wouldn't know how to learn something, and we wouldn't be able to fall asleep. We would only have to use our favourite stuffed animals" (Melinda 6 y 3m). Roma children answered the last question by saying that they did not know what would happen if the book was not there. Lilianka (5y 10m) assessed: "Then, probably nothing". Three boys said nothing. They were silent. Jacob (6y 1m) when evaluating the concept of a book stated: "We probably wouldn't go to school and neither Kevninko nor Amálka" (note, he named siblings who go to school). Children understand the concept of a book and can describe it. The Roma children also described books as e.g., a rectangle or showed books in the classroom. They described the material they are made of. Roma children associate the concept of book with school and learning in it. Children who do not come from the MRC environment described fairy tale books. All children had personal experience with books, Roma children reported that they had encountered books in kindergarten, in church, in the shopping centre and at home.
The term a magazine was described by the children as a concrete object. Only one child mentioned the name of a magazine. They did not even mention what kinds of magazines exist. Melinda (6y 3m). describing a magazine about Superdinos, stated as a source of information about the magazine that, "I know it from such a story". One little girl gave the specific name of a children's magazine, Fľak. Teacher: "And do you know any such magazine?". Pavlina 5 y 7 m: "Hey children's I know. Some Fľak. And I don't know the others". Most children reported that the magazine is thin to read, it is like a book. An interesting answer was given by Romanka (6 y 0m), "That if you go to do something in time then you write it down". And to the question: "What does such a journal look like?". She replied: "Like a book”. To the question: "What do we need magazines for?" Esterka (5 y 9m) said, "The, umm, for example, when they sell something it's there". She described leaflets. Two children, as a source of information about the term magazine, stated that they knew this from the post office. Šimonko (5y 7m) stated that, "nobody told him about the magazine". When evaluating the term, children answered differently. Šimonko (5y 7m) thought that if there were no magazines: "You could make one". As Romanka (6y 0m) considers a magazine to be a kind of notebook, she answered the evaluation question "So we wouldn't know what we were doing at the time". Most of the children said that we would have no information, know nothing, and have nothing to read. Radko (6y 5m) thought that if there were no journals we wouldn't know how to draw. Roma children to the first question "What is a magazine?" they did not answer, or they answered: "I don't know". However, when asked what it is for, they answered that it is for reading, for drawing, that there are some pictures in it. Jacob (6y 1m) said: "It is for prices, so that we know the prices". What he used to describe were the advertising leaflets. As a source of information, most of the Roma children said that they knew about the magazine from kindergarten, and with additional questions we found out that they are workbooks that Roma children work with in the Kindergarten, but one child mentioned that the teacher reads from the magazine. Lívinka (6y 0m) "What do you read Ťapek and Fuzik and then we go to talk about whether they did good or bad". Two boys mentioned the post office as a source of information about magazines and one little girl said that she had seen lots of magazines in the newsagents in the shopping centre. Roma children presented the opinion that if it were not for magazines "we would not know anything about prices" Jakub (6y 1m). Also, that then we would not be able to "cut and draw in the kindergarten" (Alexík 5r 9m). Two girls said that the teacher would not be able to read them bedtime stories.
From the children's responses about the term magazine, it is clear that the children were familiar with the term magazine describing it as a thin paperback book. "A book in such a paper cover made of plastic" Esterka (6y 2m). Both Roma and non-Roma children consider advertising leaflets as magazines. Only one child mentioned the name of a children's magazine. The answers of Roma children about the magazine show that they also consider the workbooks they work with in the kindergarten as a magazine. Due to this fact, the evaluative statements were also about the fact that if there were no magazines we would not know how to read, draw, and cut and could not learn. The Roma children learned about the magazine in the kindergarten from the teachers or assistants. Children who do not come from the MRC community report the source of information about magazines from their parents, siblings and also themselves, i.e., their own experience from observing them at the post office or in shopping malls. Also, from television serials.
Another concept we asked the children about is the term library. We regard the term library as a concrete one most of the children have encountered. 24 children answered. Children describe the concept of library in two ways. Thus, a library a building where there are many books and a school library - a library in the kindergarten, but also a shelf with books in the kindergarten. The Roma children coming from a rural settlement knew the term library in their answers they described the library building. However, only one Roma child answered clearly: 'You go there when you don't have money to buy a book' (Lilianka (5y 10m)). Children who do not come from the MRC environment said that the library is a shelf with books in the kindergarten or at home. Also, children attending a rural kindergarten located the library building, "It is such a big house where there are many books". What is the library used for they answered: "That you borrow books when you want some" (Romanka (6 y 0m). Pavlínka (5 y 7m) said, "and you can go there for a competition too, if you draw a nice picture". Almost all children mentioned kindergarten and personal experience as a source of information. Jakub (6r 1m) specified that: 'we went with the teachers to the library for a walk'. One Roma girl considers a bookshop in a shopping centre as a library. From the individual statements about the concept of library we can conclude that both Roma and non-Roma children who have encountered the concept of library have personal experience and understand it at a pre-scientific level with an error. It is gratifying that in each group, children indicated that they had personal experience with the concept of library and were familiar with the library in kindergarten. When asked an evaluation question, Roma children responded that they could not evaluate what would have happened if there were no libraries, answering that nothing would have happened. Children not coming from an MRC background said that something would have been different, Melinda (6y 3m) evaluated: "There couldn't be books on the ground". Several responded that we would have nowhere to put books.
Then we also asked about the term a writer. Again, this concept is concrete, and we surveyed who pre-schoolers consider to be a writer. Children who did not come from an MRC background reported that a writer is: "the kind of men who writes letters in books" Ester (6y 2m). Some added that "even in the newspaper he writes such things that he writes and then he puts it somewhere, where it, where it, he paints it out well. The writer makes the books and writes them too" Melinda (6y 3m). The boys could not answer the question: "Who is a writer?", they replied “I do not know, I never heard of it”. Two girls said that the teacher is a writer because she writes in such a book and Natálka (5y 11m) added that "a writer is a teacher who writes robot songs". When asked if someone else could be a writer she replied that she didn't think so. To the questions, "Why do we need a writer? What does a writer do?" children, said that a writer can write for both children's and adult books. The boys stated that a writer writes some letters (Radko (6y 5m); (Tomáš 5y 7m). When asked how you know about the writer, the children answered that from kindergarten, that the teachers told them. Some children said that their parents told them about the writer, or they made it up themselves e.g. "Nobody told me myself I know he writes in a book". Ester (6 y 2m). Roma children did not know the concept of a writer, nor did they evaluate it. "I have never heard it" said Alexik (5y 9m). Jakub (6y 1m) stated that a writer is a teaching assistant. Only one girl responded to the evaluation question that if it were not for the writers "someone else or something else would have been there" Romanka (6 y 0m). Based on the analysis of the answers we can conclude that the children learned about the concept of writer in kindergarten, some of them from their parents. However, Romani children did not understand this concept and could not describe it.
Other terms we asked the children about were the terms reading, writing. These concepts were described by all the children, using action verbs. "Reading is just that you read. For example, a fairy tale like that" David (6y 0m). "Reading is when you put something to sleep, and you put it to sleep with a book" Romanka (6y 0m). Children stated that reading serves us to read books, fairy tales. "So that we learn to do the homeworks" (Tomáš 5r 7m). On the assessment question: "What would happen if there was no reading?" they answered that we would not be able to read anything. "We wouldn't even be able to read if the bus was coming" specified Radko (6y 5m). Roma children associate both reading and writing with entering and learning in primary school. "That's what children read to school" Lilianka (5r 10m). "When you read you go to school" Lily (6r 0m). "You have to know the letters too when you go to school for tests" Alexík (5r 9m). When asked what reading is for, most Roma children answered that it is for reading at school, in church and at the post office. Sources of information about the concepts of reading and writing were mentioned by siblings, parents, and teachers in the kindergarten. When asked what would happen if it were not for reading, Roma children also answered that we would not learn anything, we would not know anything. We would not know how to read to the post office stated Dominika (5y 10m). The term writing was also described by the children with an action verb. Writing is that you write (Tomáš 5y 7m). "That you write something on paper with a pen" said Roman (5y 8m). The girls stated that writing is both for writing and for drawing letters. Roman (6r 0m) thinks that: writing is used: "to write postcards and letters". "Writing is when you write KIARKA on a drawing when you draw something on a bulletin board" Kiara (6y 5m). Neither child indicated that we can write on the computer. When asked: What would happen if there was no writing? They answered that we would not be able to write. Most, however, stated that there would be nothing. Roma children associated both reading and writing with education at school. Sources of information about writing were mentioned by siblings, kindergarten teachers, teaching assistants and parents. Roma children assessed that if it were not for writing "we would not be able to go to school". Both Roma and non-Roma children associated the concepts of reading and writing with schooling. Some children associate the concept of writing with drawing graphomotor signs in worksheets in kindergarten, or tracing letters.
The concepts of reading and writing are familiar to 5-6-year-olds, they still understand them mostly at a pre-scientific level. They said they learned about these concepts in kindergarten, but also by observing older siblings already in primary school.
4. Discussion with results
Children's authentic accounts of language terms from the national curriculum for pre-primary education in kindergarten reveal much about their level of cognitive, social and affective development. According to Kasáčová (2015), if the utterances are considered as a communicative tool, they can become an object of diagnostic and qualitative investigation. Analysing the responses to the key concepts in the development of language and pre-reading literacy in kindergarten, we can conclude that children aged 5-6 years old understand individual concepts mostly at a pre-scientific level. By comparing the answers of Roma children from the MRC background and children whose maternal language is the tuitional language, we can conclude that it was the language barrier that caused the Roma children's answers to be austere. And some could not describe their understanding of the concept. The Roma children needed frequent encouragement during the interviews as well as guidance on the concept. They often answered grammatically incorrectly and almost every answer to a question. "What is it?" began with "I don't know." Although the responses of the children who did not come from an MRC background were more extensive, we subjectively hypothesized that by not having difficulty understanding the questions, since there is no language barrier, they would present preconceptions about the concepts under investigation in a more flexible and extensive manner. Nevertheless, we conclude that the concepts from the state preschool curriculum in the area of language and communication are understood by the children. The majority of children from non-MRC backgrounds reported personal experience with the concepts studied, occasionally mediated. In contrast, Roma children had more mediated experience with the terms. It is gratifying that they were mostly mediated by the teachers of the kindergarten within the educational process. Also important is the fact that the interviewed children attended kindergartens considerably less because of the epidemiological situation. Most of the Roma children who participated in the pre-survey attended kindergarten only from September 2020, i.e., they started pre-school education only seven months before the interviews were conducted. Their peers had been attending kindergarten for longer, and some had already completed their third year of kindergarten education at the time of the research (although, they had also had a break in their education due to quarantine as well as state regulation). Describing comprehension of the abstract concepts of reading, writing a poem interview was more rigorous for all children. Concrete concepts of book, magazine, library associated with the subject were described more extensively by the children and narrated based on their own experience or imagination. Children's knowledge of the writer was only mediated, mostly by teachers or parents.
Children's preconceptions about concepts in language and literacy were explored through a phenomenological method. This method is generally understood as describing, analysing, and clarifying how children understand and experience the world around them . By describing and analysing children's preconceptions about key concepts in the language domain, it is possible to more effectively set educational goals and apply educational activities aimed at the development of pre-reading and literacy skills. We agree with the opinion of Kasáčová et al. (2017) that the teacher should not change children's preconceptions but should build on them in the development of children's cognition, by finding out the answers to the questions of how the child understands the concept, where the experience with the concept comes from, whether he or she knows the purpose and is able to incorporate it into reality in the utterances. In this way, it maps both the level of thinking and speech, but also the social context of children's lives as well as their relationship to the concepts under investigation. Roma children, especially Roma children who come from excluded Roma communities, require a specific approach to the development of language, reading and literacy skills . According to Šepeľáková and Miňová (2015), due to the influence of their backgrounds, Roma children from the MRC environment have a specific relationship with reading and writing, language, and communication. By the fact that these children do not have sufficient command of the tuitional language learning should take place in authentic situations that the child can perceive as close and natural. It is necessary to monitor closely how he/she progresses in acquiring the national language. The teacher should bear in mind that Roma children often do not have a positive attitude towards reading and writing, nor experience of having a fairy tale or children's stories read to them at home by their mother or a family member. By exploring the analysis and description of children's preconceptions obtained through thoughtful structured interviews, the teacher can competently apply methods and forms of resources to his/her educational practice .
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