The increasing use of TV and video as "electronic babysitters" means that more children are arriving in reception classes unable to listen, which has a knock-on effect on their language and reading skills, a reading expert told primary teachers this week.
Critics of the profession have failed to take into account the extra strain on teachers of reading, said Sue Palmer, general editor of the Longman Book Project reading and language programme.
"Teachers are now dealing with the additional problem that in recent years children have had electronic babysitters from birth to three years old, " she said at a conference on reading and writing children's literature organised by the journal Primary English. Over the past few years, children's ability to listen on starting school seems to have declined.
"They are attuned to watching for meaning, not listening. They are having fewer interactive experiences, such as singing songs and doing nursery rhymes, where they develop the need to listen. In cartoons, very often the sound is irrelevant to the action. Teachers now have an enormous job to attune children to language and sound," said Ms Palmer.
This has contributed to the drop in achievement in key stage 2 pointed out by the Government's chief inspector, Chris Woodhead, in his last annual report, she believes.
"I am being asked to give talks on phonics for key stage 2, when they are really intended for key stage 1," she said. "Children are not reaching the necessary level of phonic awareness in key stage 1 because teachers have had to teach them to listen first. This is a relatively recent problem which has not been recognised."
She suggests reading aloud stories which will encourage interactive listening "with opportunities to guess and predict and visualise, so children are not being passive".