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From grunting to greeting

Teachers are to get help to improve children's basic speaking and listening skills - which inspectors say are in serious decline.

Helen Ward reports

Teachers are to be offered training to improve young children's speaking and listening skills.

Academics at Manchester Metropolitan university have been commissioned by the Government to create an early language training programme, called Communicating Matters.

The move follows warnings from David Bell, the chief inspector, that the verbal and behavioural skills of the nation's five-year-olds were at an all-time low.

An analysis of 350 Office for Standards in Education reports by The TES found that inspectors were concerned about speaking and listening skills of half the four and five-year-olds starting school last term.

The head of the Government's Basic Skills Agency has said that a "daily grunt" phenomenon was being created by parents who were not devoting enough time to their children.

Alan Wells, director, said heads believed that fewer pupils now had basic language skills compared with five years ago. Last term, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority sent schools information on teaching speaking and listening from Year 1.

Professor Nigel Hall, who is leading the Manchester project, is keen that the materials are not seen as a remedial programme. He said: "This is about bringing practitioners up to date and helping support them."

The group will first produce a training pack for staff working with three to six-year-olds and later for those working with the under-threes.

Materials will be distributed in May 2005.

Ofsted confirmed children's performance on entry is measured against criteria in the foundation stage curriculum, which details the progress expected between ages three and five. A typical three-year-old uses familiar words in isolation to identify what they want. As they get older they should be able to develop explanations, initiate conversations and resolve disagreements through talk.

But inspectors who looked at four and five-year-olds in three schools, where all children were native English speakers, said: "Many children speak in single words or incomplete sentences."

Liz Attenborough, co-ordinator of the Talk to Your Baby campaign, said:

"Children are severely challenged by impaired language. They may not learn that a conversation is about taking turns. If everyone else knows it, they are disadvantaged and can't express themselves."

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