Switch off and speak up! Leaving children in front of TV can hinder speech development

Switch off and speak up! Leaving children in front of TV can hinder speech development

12:29 PM on 10th May 2011

Last year, almost 100,000 five-year-olds in England were found to be lacking important verbal skills.

According to official statistics, they didn”t reach a good enough standard in the language skills needed for good communication and thinking.

In many it is likely there was a genetic or biological cause for being unable to communicate properly. But many others had no physical problems – they just hadn”t had enough practice at speaking.

In some parts of the country, up to half of youngsters are starting school unable to link words together or even understand simple instructions.

Inarticulate: The constant background noise of TV hinders speech development in youngsters

Inarticulate:The constant background noise of TV hinders speech development in youngsters, with 100,000 lacking in important verbal skills

Experts have previously blamed watching TV all day and playing video games, the fact that families no longer eat together, children not being told bedtime stories and even forward-facing pushchairs.

Jean Gross, the Government”s communication adviser, insists that if they”re helped to catch up by the age of five, the outlook for inarticulate youngsters who do not have a specific, long-term speech condition can be “very, very good”.

“We know what works, that the amount of language and conversational turntaking helps, and one way of doing that is conversing when the family eats together,” she says.

“There”s also evidence that a constant background noise, such as the TV being on all the time, will reduce the number of conversations held and that, in turn, can hinder language development.”

Mrs Gross is backing the year-long Hello campaign to make the development of communication in children and young people a priorityin homes, nurseries and schools.

A recent survey by the Hello campaign found that 82 per cent of parents wanted more information on how children develop speech, language and communication. So, what should parents do to boost their children”s language skills

Mrs Gross points to a recent Dundee University study that found activities including singing nursery rhymes, sharing books and reminiscing, such as looking at photo albums, promote language development.

Bad example: Being left alone in front of the television has a negative impact on speech as children simply miss out on practice, say researchers

Badexample: Being left alone in front of the television has a negative impact on speech as children simply miss out on practice, researchers say

Researchers found that repetition is also important – if children are learning new words, they remember them better if they look at them again and again in the same book. Mrs Gross believes families could also boost language development by playing more board games, such as snakes and ladders and Scrabble, with their children.

They also teach children other important social skills such as waiting to take your turn. “With the sheer amount of words used, they help to expand vocabulary,” she says.

“They also develop comprehension, because you”re listening to each other when you”re planning something and you sometimes have to negotiate. “But benefits also go beyond gaining language skills because they help children learn how to accept defeat and how to be nice to each other.”

Mrs Gross suggests families could make their own board games using pieces of card. “Another great thing is making a treasure box and deciding on a theme, such as the beach.

“You get a shoebox and cover it with paper, then decide with the children what to put into it, such as a shell and a bag of sand. You talk about it as you make the treasure box and also get the box out and play with it later.”

Parents could also play Nintendo games with their children as the conversations can be “just as rich” as board games, with words such as “up”, “down”, “here” and “there”. We live in a world of widespread technology, and it”s not going to go away,” she says.

“So we need to use it to develop children”s language, rather than go back to some mythical past when there was no electronic and computer technology.”

Mrs Gross , a former educational psychologist, has backed a new free resource called Listen Up, created by the Communication Trust, which runs the Hello campaign. It provides language-based games which can be played with children between three and 11.

The pre-school pack contains a card game with suggested activities including making a car out of a cardboard box and imagining where its journey will take it. The pack for school-age children provides activity cards with suggestions for charades games which involved guessing and story-telling – one child begins a tale which is then completed by others.

Mrs Gross says: “One difficulty is that we urge parents to talk to their children, but quite often they don”t know what they could talk about. So it”s helpful to have something to focus on.

It could be looking at a photograph album together or playing games in the Listen Up pack. “I really hope lots of parents will want to order the resource. It”s free, fun and will get you and your child talking.”

For information and to order Listen Up, visit hello.org.uk