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Straight talking on toddler speech

It's good to read that reception children's speaking and listening skills have improved over the past five years (TES, January 31), a fact I ascribe to the dedication of early-years practitioners.

However, the tests on which this progress was measured started from a lowered baseline - the damage to early language development was done before they came into use. The social and cultural changes which adversely affected the listening and language skills of the nation's pre-schoolers happened in the 1980s and early 90s.

This period saw, among other things, the arrival of all-day TV, the decline of family mealtimes, and changes in work patterns which left parents less conversationally-inclined. We stopped talking to little children as much as we had in the past.

Between 1985 and 1998, speech and language therapist Dr Sally Ward recorded a disturbing deterioration in the listening skills of young children. I wrote about her work in The TES in 1997 and was bombarded with alarming reports from infant teachers around the country about decreasing language skills in new entrants. This was not just a case of "everybody thinks summers were more summery in their own childhood" but real concern.

I do not think it is coincidence that national panic about literacy standards swelled to a crescendo as this language-poor generation of children hit the schools. Nor that the same decade saw a rise in behavioural problems, especially attention deficit disorder.

Early-years specialists have ever since been dealing with children whose language and listening skills are less well-developed than in the past, and it's a tribute to them that they have made improvements. But unless we acknowledge how things have changed, and start helping parents provide a more language-rich environment for little children, universal literacy will remain beyond our grasp.

Sue Palmer

11 St George's Road

Truro, Cornwall

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