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Telly has ways of making kids talk

Tinky Winky encourages dressing up and the Boobahs can get children bouncing around. Helen Ward reports

Young children are not couch potatoes: watching television is more likely to make them dance, sing and chatter to the on-screen characters, a conference will be told next week.

TV is often cited as one of the reasons why children have poor communication skills. But speakers at the event, organised by the early language campaign, Talk to Your Baby, will argue that the medium can be a powerful way of helping children become literate.

Anne Wood, co-creator of Teletubbies, said children will immediately engage if a programme catches their interest. "Four-year-olds will start jumping about, especially with the Boohbahs," she said.

The Boohbahs, colourful magical atoms whose movement is stopped and started by children saying the word "Boohbah", are a new favourite on ITV.

Guidelines on teaching speaking and listening were issued to all schools last term, and the Government has recently commissioned a training programme for pre-school practitioners.

David Bell, chief inspector, has said he is concerned that the speaking skills of children are at an all-time low.

At the conference, researchers and programme-makers are to discuss how TV can contribute to language development.

Dr Jackie Marsh of the University of Sheffield will relate how she gave nursery children media boxes to take home, which included a video of a TV programme, such as the Teletubbies, and a range of language games and reading material. She said: "Children would talk about the TV programme and develop play around the characters.

One box had dressing-up clothes so children could pretend to be Tinky Winky, one of the Teletubbies. Children were asked to write instructions to mend Noo Noo, the vacuum cleaner, who had broken down.

"Children at nursery were highly motivated, particularly boys. It is about using TV effectively."

She also challenges the idea that watching TV is passive. "We did a study in Sheffield and only one child out of 44 families sat passively in front of the TV. All the other parents said children would be dancing, singing, talking to the characters or playing with dolls. Children are not couch potatoes."

Anne Wood said that TV is not comparable to a classroom, and should not be treated as such. "Once you allow the debate to become TV versus learning then you increase anxiety to the point where support for the proper development of TV dries up."

The one-day conference: TV is here to stay - How can television contribute to children's language development? is in London on Monday March 15. or 0207 828 2435

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