Social Contexts and Child Language Acquisition

9 June 2009

Read the following two articles from the Daily Telegraph and write about whether you think that children’s changing environment is affecting their language for better or worse. Use evidence from your own investigations and research. Teacher and class notes have been added in CAPITALS.

Not on Speaking Terms: Why do many children lack basic language skills?

Ann Jones is used to getting blank stares. As a primary school teacher of 20 years’ standing, she has seen the communication skills of her classes deteriorate steadily. “Too many children are starting school lacking basic language skills,” she says. “A simple request such as Go to the cupboard and get the pencils, please’ is met with a blank look. Some of them simply don’t know what I am talking about.
IS THIS EXAGGERATED? THIS IS A BASIC COMMAND. THIS IS SUGGESTING THE CHILDREN DON’T UNDERSTAND THE REQUEST

Nursery teachers agree with anecdotal evidence that children are less verbally advanced than at any time in recent history.
“The hard research evidence isn’t there as yet because it hasn’t been done,” says Gill Edelman, chief executive of I Can. ” But there is a growing body of opinion among professionals that there are more children than there used to be with communication difficulties – and boys are three times more likely to have problems than girls. Early intervention is critical because by the time they get to primary school they may already have developed behavioural problems through frustration.”

Edelman believes it is vital that parents talk to their babies right from the beginning. “Most parents do it automatically, but some need encouragement.”

Liz Attenborough at the National Literacy Trust agrees and the charity is running a campaign called Talk To Your Baby. “One professional told me that, in the old days, you could look around a nursery and highlight the children with difficulties because they were unusual, but nowadays it’s the other way round – you highlight the children without difficulties.”

Blaming television is obvious, but Attenborough thinks it is only part of the story. Most households are much noisier, with a background din from a television or radio preventing people from talking to each other. The family unit is now smaller, with fewer adults around to talk to children, and busy lives mean that traditional mealtimes are becoming a rare occurrence. Attenborough also cites the move away from active play to what she calls solo toys, such as computer games. “Parents feel they have to give their children expensive presents and don’t realise that children would rather have their time than something flashy.”

SOCIAL CONTEXTS ARE IMPORTANT. TELEVISION COULD BE BLAMED TO AN EXTENT; THE LACK OF INTERACTIONAL LANGUAGE COULD BE BLAMED. TELEVISION COULD BE A GOOD WAY OF DEVELOPING INTERACTIONAL LANGUAGE EG TALKING TO YOUR CHILD
SOLO TOYS. IF THEY ARE USED TOO MUCH. THEY ARE NOT PRIMARILY LEARNING TOOLS BUT SOMETIMES PARENTS USE THEM AS REPLACEMENTS. CHILDREN COULD STILL TALK ABOUT THE GAMES AT LENGTH AND COMMUNICATE WITH THEM. PERHAPS SHOWS THE FLAWS IN CHOMSKY’S THEORIES. CHOMSKY WROTE THE THEORY IN THE 1960S WHEN THERE WAS LITTLE OPPORTUNITY FOR SOLO PLAY.

(Daily Telegraph, 3 April 2004)

Ignored and grunted at – TV toddlers have to be taught to talk

Youngsters aged from three to five will be given lessons on how to speak and listen properly under government plans to tackle a decline in children’s language skills.
Serious concern was expressed at a recent ministerial meeting about the growing numbers of pupils starting school unable to talk clearly or pay attention to the teacher. A decision was made to introduce special tuition.

Education researchers, who blame increased television viewing and the decline of family conversation for the trend, say that teaching such children the 3Rs is a waste of time because they have not yet grasped the basics of language.
Liz Attenborough, the co-ordinator of the Talk to Your Baby campaign, run by the National Literacy Trust, said: “Unbelievable as it seems, some children starting nursery do not seem to have ever had a one-to-one conversation with anyone.

The Department for Education and Skills asked officials from the National Primary Strategy, the Sure Start Unit and others working in early-years education to draw up proposals for improving verbal and aural ability.
As a result, an “early language and communication project” is being set up. This will make the study of speaking and listening a priority in the classroom. Guidance will be given to teachers and nursery staff on how to improve children’s capabilities in both areas.
One suggestion is that formal education should be postponed for at least a year for children who lag behind their age group.
A department spokesman confirmed that action to tackle deficiencies in young children’s speaking and listening was being prepared after a government “think-tank” considered the problem. “The think-tank grew out of a recognition of widespread concerns about language and communication in pre-school children,” she said. “All those working with the youngest children need to have the appropriate knowledge and understanding of the development of language. The aim of the project is to improve that knowledge.”
Research published earlier this year by the Government’s Basic Skills Agency found that head teachers believed that – compared with five years ago – fewer pupils now had basic language skills such as speaking audibly and talking voluntarily to others. Less than half of those starting school could recite songs or rhymes.
The findings prompted Alan Wells, the agency’s director, to give warning that a “daily grunt” phenomenon was being created by parents, including some well-educated, who were not devoting enough time to their children. He said that an increasing number adopted a “leave it to the school” approach, which was failing their offspring.
“In some families, parents seem to lack the skills to develop the language of children,” said Mr Wells. “In others, parents with lots of money, but little time, buy themselves out of giving attention to their children by using computer games that children play themselves without the interaction of the parents.” Mr Wells said that as well as parental neglect, excessive television viewing was a cause of the decline in linguistic skills. Other academics have blamed the use of computers and schools’ over-emphasis on reading and writing at a very early age for some young children’s poor grasp of language.
The I Can charity, which promotes speech and language in children, has estimated that one in 10 children in Britain struggles to understand what people are saying and has difficulty conveying thoughts and feelings.
Pressure for changes to teaching methods has been heightened by a recent Sheffield University study which found that children’s language skills did not necessarily improve once they were in school or nursery.
It disclosed that the speech development of 240 three-year-olds from deprived areas actually deteriorated after they had attended nursery for two years. Ann Locke and Jane Ginsborg, the researchers, attributed their findings to the children’s limited exposure to spoken language at home, but also in their subsequent early-years education.
Under current government guidelines, three- to five-year-olds in schools, nurseries and playgroups are supposed to reach goals in “communication, language and literacy”.
Very young children are expected to be able to make eye contact and express themselves with body language. By the time they have reached five, they should have progressed from simple statements and questions to the ability to talk to others, initiate conversation, take account of what people say and take turns in conversation.
However, many teachers and nursery staff are not adequately trained in speech and language, says Maria Mroz, an early-years researcher at Newcastle University. “It is clear that talking and playing are not as prominent as one might wish in developing children’s language. Early-years professionals recognise their responsibility. However, they lack the tools and the knowledge to assess speech and language development specifically and to identify delay or disorder.”
Liz Attenborough, of the Talk to Your Baby campaign, welcomed the new government project and said that language was the key to learning and behaviour.
She added: “Many people believe that if you haven’t tackled [language problems] by the time children start formal school it is too late – or at least much harder to do anything about.”
Nearly 90 per cent of three-year-olds have some state-funded early-years education and the majority of four-year-olds are in school nurseries.

(Sunday Telegraph, 1 June 2003)

THE ARTICLE RAISES SOME CONCERNS THAT IF CHILDREN ARE NOT TAUGHT PROPERLY. WE MIGHT SPECULATE THAT WITHOUT THE PROPER LANGUAGE SKILLS TO BEGIN WITH MORE FORMAL SCHOOLING IS POINTLESS.

Obtain new educational materials like foreign language learning videos for children which will help them stay engaged in the learning process.

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