Nursery-age children are arriving at school with ever poorer speaking and listening skills. They come from homes where television is king and face-to-face communication a dying art, giving staff a mighty big headache about how to make up lost time.
Schools in Oxford are now tackling the problem by training nursery and Reception-class staff in a highly structured Canadian way of working with children's language. The Hanen system is a speech and language programme developed by therapists for working with children with language delay, but teachers who have been using the system in schools say it makes a significant difference to the skills of all pupils at foundation stage.
"Our baseline assessments last term were the highest we've ever had, and these were the first children to go through our nursery under Hanen," says Mary Whitlock, head of Windale First School, situated on Oxford's challenging Blackbird Leys Estate. And while she acknowledges that it is too early to say with certainty that this is a direct result of the Hanen programme, she is sure it is a major contributor to rising achievement.
The programme trains teachers, classroom assistants and nursery nurses to change how they talk to pupils. Out goes teacher-directed questioning. In come patient observing, waiting and listening.
Teachers step back and give children time and space to talk, encouraging this by threading remarks in and alongside whatever is going on.
So, for example, instead of asking, "What are you doing there, Sarah?" of a child playing in a sandpit, a nursery teacher might sit down beside her and not say a word, or make general comments about what she is doing, then wait for her to volunteer something of her own.
"You do feel a bit of an idiot at first sitting there saying, 'Oh look, you're playing with the sand' or 'Look, you're digging with the spade'," says Janet Dunkley, nursery teacher at Windale, "But it does take the pressure off them. I think we're sometimes all very guilty of trying to force children to talk."
She had never heard of Hanen, and felt a bit sceptical when it was introduced, thinking it was just another initiative. "But I can honestly say these are the best courses I've ever done. It turned a lot of my training on its head, but the children are talking more and their language is better.
"We had one child who started this term with a vocabulary of about four words. All we got were grunts and pointing, but he's now definitely communicating with us. The children are made to feel safe and secure, they sit and listen to you talking, then when they are ready, they speak."
Hanen training is intensive. Windale closed its Reception and nursery classes for some mornings and afternoons in order to give time for training all the teachers, classroom assistants and nursery nurses.
The course involves making videotapes of how staff interact with children and then giving them instant feedback, which many of them found daunting at first, although they say it was invaluable in showing them how they weren't doing many of the things that they thought they were.
"What Hanen does," says Mary Whitlock, "is change the balance between children and adults. The adults don't jump in any more, though they are tuned in and actively listening."
The original idea was developed by a Montreal therapist, Ayala Manolson, in the 1970s, when she saw that parents could use everyday routines and conversations as opportunities for language learning.
The Hanen Center, a Canadian charity, now offers a whole range of programmes, which are used in 44 countries, with resources translated into languages from Arabic to Vietnamese.
The programme arrived in Oxford via a new senior manager in the speech and language therapy department, who was anxious to take language work with young children out of clinics and into schools.
The local Hamilton Oxford education action zone paid for one therapist to be trained to deliver the programme, while the health authority paid for another - "Our first foray into multi-agency working," says Gloria Walker, director of the EAZ. She acknowledges that training is expensive (at least pound;500 per therapist) and intensive, but says the results after a pilot year are looking good.
"We've seen how it has impacted on teachers. Now we're trying to see how it has impacted on children." However, she is so confident that improvements will be found, that other schools in the Oxford partnership are already being trained in the techniques. Two have finished training, three are undergoing it now, and three others will start next year.
Janet Dunkley says she would have preferred the training to have been spread out over a whole year rather than being condensed into two terms, and she wonders how easy it would be to follow Hanen's patient, unplanned and responsive approach in a classroom dominated by the demands of the national curriculum. But these are quibbles. In general, she thinks anyone working with young children would benefit from learning Hanen techniques.