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Children arriving at school unable to speak or read properly is a ‘scandal’, minister says

This finding comes as no surprise and mirrors a general decline in children’s physical readiness for school in terms of the motor skills they need to support learning (EYE July 2018).

Perhaps the most worrying trend is an apparent lack of awareness amongst a new generation of parents and policy makers of why parental conversation, physical involvement and engagement in the early years and beyond are so vital to develop these skills.

Parents across the social spectrum are faced with multiple demands and challenges, from the need for both parents to work and place their children in child care to those who have no work and struggle to provide for themselves and their families. Technology as “entertainment” is an easy tool to reach for, and while it can inform, the risk it poses to the development of young children resides primarily in what it does not do. Even Damian Hinds, anxious to address the problem, speaking on the Radio 4 Today programme (31.7.18), fell into the trap of suggesting that technology could be a good substitute or “complement” to parental engagement.

Involvement with technology is not the same as one-to-one interaction: It is pre-programmed to respond in a limited number of ways; it does not “listen” to what the child has to say or adapt its response; it creates an environment of background noise which is detrimental to the development of listening skills and attention and it does not encourage a desire to communicate with others.

Contrast this with what happens during one-to-one interaction.  Researchers at the University of Edinburgh showed that when a mother talks to her infant, if she pauses for a few seconds,  given time to process the information, her baby will produce a perfect musical answering phrase and will continue this musical dialogue for several minutes. If she continues to talk without waiting, the baby will lose interest in the conversation.

Infants (meaning one without language) are born with a capacity to learn any language under the sun, if they are exposed to the sounds of that language on a daily basis.  Over the first three years of life they learn to “tune in” to sounds that are specific to the mother tongue, and provided they can hear and practice those sounds throughout every day, speech should emerge.  Children pick up the mimetic (gestural) and musical aspects of language before they use words, practising intonation, melody and phrasing before they string words together in complete sentences. They learn this by making and modelling the gestures which accompany speech and listening and reflecting the speech sounds around them.  This is a physically and socially interactive process.

Background noise can interfere with this process, as it makes it difficult to hear specific sounds and it encourages children to “switch off”.    Modern living tends to be littered with visual and noise interference and interruption.  It can take up to 15 minutes for an adult to return a previous state of sustained attention when interrupted in the middle of a task and children are more prone to distraction.

How can parents help to develop these skills:

  1. Talk to your baby

  2. Give your baby time to reflect and respond

  3. Seek baby equipment which enables your baby to see you when you are out and about

  4. Sing lullabies and nursery rhymes

  5. Tell and read stories – long before your child can read he/she will be fascinated by the music of the language and what it conveys

  6. Make sure your child can see you when you are engaged in conversation

  7. Take time to stop, listen and respond to what your child has to say

  8. Read to your child every day

  9. Reduce background or competing noise at home

  10. When your child is old enough, try to sit down  to family meals at a table at least 5 days a week.

  11. Encourage your child to contribute to adult conversation, but do not interrupt or allow your child to interrupt you mid-conversation.

The development of speech is important not only for oral communication but is also fundamental to the development of literacy, the ability to express needs and desires in acceptable ways and the ability to think and reason verbally.  Speech develops in the context of physical and social engagement with others.

Adult relationships suffer when there is lack of engagement. Children are no different in this respect and you are your child’s favourite people!

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