Settle down for a cosy chat

Sue Palmer on the importance of a sound foundation in language skills

Helping Young Children to Listen By Ros Bayley and Lynn Broadbent Lawrence Education Publications Price: pound;12.50

Time to Talk By Alison Schroeder LDA Price: pound;19.95

At last, some simple, systematic, effective materials for tackling one of the greatest problems in primary schools today: the ever-growing numbers of children who arrive in nursery or reception with very poor language and listening skills.

Without help, these children are at risk of developing behavioural difficulties - if you can't listen to the teacher or express your needs, it's not easy to follow the rules, and the downward spiral begins. They're also going to have problems with learning in general, and with literacy in particular.

The teachers I meet on in-service courses have been reporting for years that the number of children in this group has swollen to dangerous proportions, but the Department for Education and Skills has yet to acknowledge it.

Thank goodness, then, for two books which provide a life-line for nursery and reception teachers - the people who are now on the front line in coping with the problem. Thank goodness also that the authors clearly know their stuff about listening and language development, and that they've been able to embed it in extremely child-friendly, practical classroom activities.

Helping Young Children to Listen comes with a soft toy - Lola the leopard cub. She will fit into tiny hands, and the teacher is urged to make a big fuss of introducing her, explaining that she's shy and needs plenty of quiet and careful handling. The book also provides rules for listening, and 40 games and activities to develop skills. Children will love it, but nursery teachers and playgroup leaders, who have been crying out for something like this, will love it even more.

Time to Talk is ideal for slightly older children. It is billed as "a programme to develop oral and social interaction skills at reception and key stage 1". Again, the material is built round a character - Ginger the bear, and his friends and relations, pictures of whom are provided for making puppets and displays.

It takes children through a carefully structured course in speaking and listening, each activity accompanied by a poem to develop phonological awareness. There are also useful teaching notes and assessment materials. But perhaps the best thing about Time to Talk is that each activity is followed up with a photocopiable letter home, explaining what the child has learnt and how parents can help.

Since the epidemic of poor listening and language almost certainly has its origins in the decline of parental involvement with pre-school children, let's hope Ginger turns out to be an important 21st century social reformer, helping mums and dads learn the age-old skills of talking and listening to their little ones.

Sue Palmer is an independent literacy in-service provider and writer

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