‘Children don’t know their own names’ – an issue in the media spotlight

Last month saw speech, language and communication needs in the media spotlight. Frank Field, the Labour MP for Birkenhead and the government’s Poverty Tsar, commented that children were starting school without the basic skills they needed to learn. He also asserted that some children start at primary school without knowing their own names.

Speaking on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, Jean Gross, the government’s Communication Champion said that some children were starting school with ‘hidden’ speech and language difficulties. She added that in some places, particularly areas of social deprivation, upwards of 50% of children were starting school with a limited level of language, often because parents are unsure how to talk to their children.

I CAN speech and language advisor, Eva March, responds:

During Hello, the national year of communication, the media spotlight gets people thinking and talking about speech and language development in young children and how this links to their later lives.

Anecdotally, I am sure that there are rare cases of children starting school aged 5 without knowing their names. This is likely to be caused by persistent and long term communication difficulties rather than delayed language.  Other children are certainly starting school with fewer words than they need which puts them at a real disadvantage to their peers.

Research has shown that a child’s vocabulary at age 5 has been found to be the best predictor (from a range of measures at age 5 and 10) of whether children who experienced social deprivation in childhood were able to escape poverty in later adult life. But not every parent (or professional!) knows how to help their child learn how to talk, listen and understand. Learning language doesn’t come easily to all children – we need to develop it. And luckily help is at hand!

As the new term approaches, parents calling our enquiry service, I CAN Help, tell us they are not sure about the communication milestones for their baby or toddler. They also want tips on how to support their child’s speaking, listening and communication skills before they start school. Here are some of our suggestions.

Over the summer, there are a number of activities you as a parent, grandparent or carer can do with your child, to help them get ‘communication-ready’ for school.

You can:

  • Play games that involve taking turns to help children to learn how to listen and concentrate for longer.
  • Encourage children to talk without being questioned to help them to talk more about their experiences. Use open questions like ‘What are you going to play with today?’ to encourage children to say more than ‘yes’ and ‘no’. And if children find it difficult to answer such open questions, parents can give them choices, such as ‘cars or animals?’
  • Help children to continue learning by introducing new words and phrases as you talk naturally.
  • Have fun with words and rhymes, e.g. using silly voices, to help children learn the skills they need for reading and writing.
  • Give children time to think before responding to questions and instructions. Parents can help by not answering for them or finishing their sentences.

For more information on how to develop children’s communication, check out Talking Point. If you are worried about your child’s progress, have a look at the Talking Point progress checker or your local children’s centre.