Parents, early years workers and teachers need to spend more time talking creatively to children, instead of just telling them what to do, according to the producer behind the BBC's groundbreaking Child of our Time documentary series.
Tessa Livingstone, the programme's former executive producer, told a Learning and Teaching Scotland conference on developing literacy in the early years last week that children were increasingly becoming "passive recipients of speech".
Some 50 per cent of children entered P1 with "impoverished" language, she said, while 18.5 per cent leave primary without being functionally literate.
"That is because children watch so much television and don't do the amount of speaking they used to do," said Dr Livingstone, author of the book, Child of our Time: Early Learning.
As part of the research for the series, presented by Robert Winston and carried out in conjunction with the Open University, her team filmed the 25 children over 48 hours to analyse their communication skills at the age of eight, in 2008.
"At the age of eight, children like to initiate rich, detailed conversations about things they are really interested in. We wanted to know how often children got the chance to talk freely with their parents and in school," she told an audience of early years workers and primary teachers in Glasgow.
"Two-thirds of all communication was about daily routine. Only a quarter of children said they talked to parents more than once a week about something that mattered," said Dr Livingstone, a specialist in neurophysiology.
"We learned that the only time adults speak to children is to tell them what to do," she said.
Even in the classroom, virtually all communication between teachers and children was "practical".
Three-quarters of conversations were aimed at the whole class and less than one per cent was aimed at the children being followed by the Child of our Time team from their birth in 2000 until they reach 20.
She described this lack of "actual conversation" as "quite problematic", particularly at a time where there was evidence of an "epidemic of stress" among young children.
"Teachers don't have a lot of time to explore subjects with children - they have a curriculum to adhere to," she said.
Teachers in most primary schools did not give children enough time to answer their questions: they allowed three seconds for a child to answer a question and only a further 1.5 seconds if the child the teacher was looking at was slow to respond, she said.
"Children only have time to speak to each other in the playground; otherwise it is very functional speech in the family and with the teacher," she concluded.
Dr Livingstone also highlighted the Unicef report of 2007 which found that UK children had the lowest levels of well-being in the developed world. To back up its findings, she quoted a series of statistics indicating children's poor mental health:
- one in 10 5-16 year-olds has clinically recognisable mental disorders requiring psychiatric help, according to the UK Government's Office for National Statistics;
- the number of children prescribed with anti-depressants quadrupled between 1998 and 2007;
- according to American research, the average child today experiences the level of anxiety on a daily basis that children in a psychiatric hospital used to experience in the 1950s.
What the delegates said
"We have a responsibility to help parents - parents want more time and feel very dissatisfied with their own parenting."
"The TV or the PlayStation is used as a pacifier."
"We are also finding parents spending 46 per cent of the day online or playing on their Xbox."
"Only 10 per cent of children in nursery get read to at night - most fall asleep watching a DVD."
`Early intervention is key'
Tessa Livingstone cited the work of nursery teachers who taught James, one of the 25 children featured in Child of our Time, as an example of how early intervention can have an impact on children's behaviour.
James's mother, Carol, comes from a very deprived background and suffers from a mild learning difficulty. She split up from the father of her elder child, Bernie, and was unsure of who had fathered James until he was born. When James was a toddler, social services came close to removing him from her care because she seemed unable to care for him.
When he entered his south London nursery, he had significant behavioural problems, hitting other children and staff. Six months later, thanks to nursery staff, his concentration skills had developed, he was sharing toys with other children and was making friends easily.
"His teacher, Valerie, turned him around completely so that he was learning and communicating pretty well at nursery. This was the first time he really felt safe and appreciated," said Dr Livingstone.
When James was four, his mother entered a violent relationship; her new boyfriend kidnapped James when he was five.
Asked by the BBC team what he wanted to be when he grew up, James said "a robber". Others in the group aspired to be a teacher, or even a fairy.
At the age of seven, James did badly in his first SATs test. By then, his attitude was: "If I am not going to pass it, I am not even going to try," said Dr Livingstone.