Concern about children’s speaking skills is increasing. A Basic Skills Agency poll in 2003 reported that half of teachers said that children were now starting school unable to speak audibly, be understood by others, respond to simple instructions, recognise their own names or count to five. It is not the first time such concerns have been raised.
In 1995 a ground-breaking piece of social research was conducted in the US by Betty Hart and Todd R Risley into all the words a child would hear and speak in encounters with their parent or care-giver in their early years. The children thus monitored came from ‘welfare’ families, working class families and professional families. Hart and Risley’s findings, published in their book Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children revealed stark differences in the three groups’ early experiences. By the age of four, the child of a professional family will have had 50 million words addressed to it as opposed to the 30 million words addressed to a working class child and the 12 million addressed to a child from a ‘welfare’ family. Astoundingly, by the age of three the child from a professional family has a bigger vocabulary than the parent of a ‘welfare’ family child.
Hart and Risley’s research also addresses the nature of the verbal interactions with the children. At the age of three the child of a professional family has had 700,000 ‘encouragements’ addressed to it and 80,000 ‘discouragements’. The child of a ‘welfare’ family will have had only 60,000 encouragements as opposed 160,000 discouragements. Class and poverty appear to be the determining factors in these discrepancies.
Interestingly, ‘television’ appears in the index of Meaningful Differences and is discussed as an influence while I looked in vain for ‘books’, ‘reading’, ‘lullabies’, ‘bedtime story’, ‘nursery rhymes’ and the like. Some of the verbatim material cited of exchanges between children and adults includes responses to picture books but the significant role books and being read to can play in children’s development at all kinds of levels is not explored. Thank goodness then for The National Literacy Trust’s Early Language Campaign’s Talk To Your Baby, which is featured as this issue’s Useful Organisation (see page 14).
Readers who have been following the way Roger and Jo Mills have been introducing their son Hal to books and his responses as described in ‘Hal’s Reading Diary’ can be in no doubt of the child’s early capacity, given a good enough environment, to engage eagerly with the processes of symbolisation. This leads, as Roger Mills puts it, ‘to the possibility of words conjuring images and narratives in the mind… from a distance it seems such a normal little thing, that a child can start to take in stories told through words. But in terms of a mind’s development it is a shift of huge importance. The beginning… of real thinking, and real imagination.’
Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children (Brookes Publishing, Maryland USA) can be ordered from