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Look who's talking

Pushchairs that face the wrong way, TV dinners, dummies... they're all enemies of early language development. Stephanie Northen reports on a campaign that encourages parents to turn the buggy round and get chatting

It's the weekend. You're in a crowded, noisy shopping mall, regretting your materialistic urges. Coming towards you is a group of young mums and dads.

Their children lead the way, not running or skipping, but strapped face-front into buggies. They cannot see their parents, let alone talk to them. They look bored and weepy.

This everyday scene upsets Liz Attenborough, who runs the Talk To Your Baby campaign to raise awareness of why parents must communicate with their very young children. Ms Attenborough, who was formerly director of Puffin Books and the National Year of Reading, frets about pushchairs that face the wrong way, about TV dinners, dummies, and a modern society so well supplied with toys and entertainment that simple talking has been forgotten.

"But," she says, "let's get one thing straight. I don't think any parent wilfully does not talk to their baby. They just don't know that they should." It is a shocking statement, but one backed up by considerable anecdotal evidence from heads and teachers who say that children's ability to talk and listen when they start school is in serious decline.

"Over and over again," she says, "teachers say they don't know what to do with these children who, they feel, have barely had a one-to-one conversation in their lives. They don't know what turn-taking is, and what conversation is, they don't make eye contact, and they can't make choices.

If you ask them, 'Do you want water or juice?' they don't know how to respond."

It's been two years since Ms Attenborough's campaign was set up by the National Literacy Trust, initially funded by Sure Start and now by the Esmee Fairbairn foundation. In that time she has made contact with many others concerned about young children's language. Three projects - in Liverpool, Stoke on Trent, and Manchester - have her enthusiastic support.

Mike Carden runs one of them. He is education manager of the Sure Start scheme in Netherley Valley, Liverpool, one of the most deprived areas in Europe. He doesn't mince his words. "These are indigenous kids who have lost the ability to speak," he says.

"Large numbers of children are entering school with an inability to communicate. This will eventually become a speech and language therapist's issue, then a psychologist's, and then, ultimately, God knows where it will end up."

Earlier this year, the Basic Skills Agency had to defend its decision to spend pound;1 million on television advertisements encouraging parents to talk to their young children. The agency said it had been driven to run the ads, shown in Wales, by a survey of more than 700 Welsh headteachers, nearly 60 per cent of whom said their pupils' ability to listen and respond to instructions had deteriorated, and that fewer children could speak clearly. Perhaps not surprisingly, the campaign upset the National Confederation of Parent-Teacher Associations, which warned the agency against spending too much money on advertisements telling parents to do what they were already doing.

Liz Attenborough is alert to charges of both nanny-statism and insensitivity. "I'm not into making parents feel bad or guilty, but there are things that can be tackled. Some parents, for example, will say, 'I don't know what to talk about,' or 'I don't see anyone else doing it so I don't want to look stupid', or even, 'He doesn't understand, anyway'." Such ignorance of child development is being tackled by Talk To Your Baby's new "quick tips" downloadable A4 advice sheets, published in nine languages.

"Say hello to your new baby from day one" they urge; and "Your voice is your baby's favourite music, so sing to her."

In Netherley Valley, Mike Carden set up the Chatterbox project, which for the past year has placed 10 parents with basic speech and language training in local primary schools. They are there simply to encourage the children to talk, tell stories, play games and hold conversations.

"All I've ever wanted," says Mr Carden, "is to raise the profile of basic language and communication skills. Without those, children cannot function normally in society, and that is a form of child abuse."

One of the Chatterboxes worked in Our Lady of the Assumption primary, whose head, Chris Kirk, understands that communication is a priority for many of her 300 pupils, and the younger they start improving the better. She invites parents with pre-school children along to twice-weekly mother and toddler groups. The sessions are led by a nursery nurse skilled in speaking and listening who talks to children, tells them stories, and gives the mums a chance to chat together. Then she encourages them to read stories to the two-year-olds, just as a teacher would.

"Children need nursery rhymes, songs, and talking to all the time," says Mrs Kirk, "but parents don't necessarily know that, or they feel they don't have the skills. Yet if their children can't communicate verbally they have no chance with their writing skills."

Liz Attenborough sings the praises of Netherley Valley, and of Stoke Speaks Out, another major drive to improve young children's speaking and listening. Stoke Speaks Out was sparked by research that showed 50 per cent of three to four-year-olds in the six most deprived areas of the city had some form of language delay. They didn't have a special need, but they soon would.

Not if Janet Cooper has her way. Mrs Cooper is a speech therapist who leads a team of 15, including psychologists, a midwife, play workers and education staff. In the past three months they have trained 330 mainly school staff in basic awareness of the issue, while 120, also mostly from schools, have done a more advanced two-day course. The training is city-wide, though the project is initially concentrating on five wards, targeting 15 primary schools, nurseries, playgroups, parent and toddler groups, the local maternity unit and libraries. The pound;700,000 project is written into the local authority's 10-year plan and Mrs Cooper has been impressed by the commitment everyone has shown. Stoke Speaks Out has been inspired by the Sure Start ethos of going out into the community.

"It's all very well sitting in your clinic expecting people to come to you, but once you get into people's homes, you realise that some families are so chaotic, have so many issues, that speech and language are just not on their agenda. Maybe as professionals we don't appreciate what is really going on for children and families, so it has opened our eyes."

A recent questionnaire of 600 parents revealed that while most had a generally sound idea of language development, there were glaring errors.

"Some thought that children do not talk until they are two, so they are not going to be stimulating their babies or moving them along. And quite a few thought that babies do not hear until they are six weeks old. If you believe that you are obviously not going to talk to them," says Mrs Cooper.

The project stresses the importance of "attachment" as well as talking. This translates as creating an environment where a child knows his or her needs will be met appropriately. "Here the culture is often if a baby cries, the dummy goes in. Any two-way communication ends right there."

But she says it is not down to lack of love. "They love them to bits, they just don't always understand the importance of interaction. Yet they could start before their babies are born. When you rub your bump the baby will push back. That is the very start of turn-taking and communication."

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