Here's an alarming statistic. Twelve years ago, a survey of the listening skills of nine-month-old children in inner-city Manchester found 20 per cent had significant difficulties in listening selectively - they lacked the ability to focus on specific foreground sounds while tuning out background noise. By 1996, the proportion had risen to 35 per cent - a 15 per cent increase in a dozen years. Other inner-city areas using the same screening test are already reporting 40 per cent. These surveys are large and reliable - so it seems entirely possible that by the early years of the new millennium, around half the nation's one-year-olds will be unable to listen satisfactorily to the sound of their parents' voices against the noise of the television.
According to Dr Sally Ward, the speech and language specialist who developed the test, children who cannot listen selectively run a high risk of language delay and problems with concentration which can bedevil their school careers. They are especially likely to have difficulties with reading.
Discrimination of significant sounds is a vital factor in the development of phonological awareness - the ability to tune into speech and recognise the individual sounds in spoken words. And without phonological awareness, children may make little sense of phonics - teaching will fall on what are, to all intents and purposes, deaf ears.
All this will come as no surprise to nursery and infant teachers. Ask anyone with responsibility for young children if they have noticed a deterioration in listening skills and the response is immediate and affirmative. Teachers' comments recorded in my own notebooks during phonics in-service training sessions I have run over the past 12 months include: * "Listening deteriorating year on year."
* "Children can't concentrate any more - television to blame."
* "Don't seem to be able to tune into conversation. Have to be taught to listen."
* "Parents not talking to their children like they used to. No nursery rhymes."
Until now, however, comments and anecdote have been all teachers had to go on. In an educational climate where professional opinions are viewed with suspicion, there has seemed little point in voicing them and being accused yet again of "low expectations" or trendy developmental theorising. Sally Ward's research, though disturbing, at least confirms teachers' suspicions.
There could be many factors behind the increase - increased incidence of intermittent hearing loss, for instance, perhaps related to diet or the environmental factors behind the asthma boom. But Dr Ward's research suggests one particular social change is at the root of the problem: all-day television. "When television's on all the time, parents don't interact with their children - they don't do those daily rituals with familiar language for the child to join in, such as dressing, bath-times, getting ready for bed. They don't use nursery rhymes and tickling rhymes and so on, because the TV provides all the entertainment. When the parent does speak, the child can't hear properly because of the background noise - they learn not to attend to language as a major source of meaning."
The problem grows more serious as successive generations are reared in a television culture. Many of today's parents have themselves missed out on interactive language in the early years. They cannot teach their children nursery rhymes because they never learned them themselves. Sally Ward believes it amounts almost to "a breakdown in the culture of parenting".
There is, however, some good news too. In a recent study, she employed a simple intervention technique: asking parents to turn the TV off for 20 minutes a day and talk to their children. When parents were shown ways of interacting with their child, including baby-talk, nursery rhymes and routine language play, their children made rapid improvements and were soon back on track with their listening skills. "In children with normal hearing, early intervention is very effective," Dr Ward explains. "But the problem doesn't go away spon-taneously, and the longer you leave it the more difficult it becomes to fix."
She would like to see the screening test introduced nationally for nine-month-olds. Advice and help could then be made available for parents as soon as problems are discovered, when remedial action is relatively easy. But with resources already overstretched, action on a problem that falls between two government departments, health and education, could take many years. In the meantime, we are left with a huge increase in the number of children needing remedial help even before formal teaching of reading begins.
Nursery teachers are in the front line, and high-quality nursery provision should certainly help those children lucky enough to get it. Carol Kimberley, whose nursery school in Cornwall was singled out last year as one of the Office for Standards in Education's starred schools, is well-aware of the problem. She affirms Sally Ward's conviction that it is not confined to the inner cities, saying: "By the time children arrive at nursery they often have very poor listening skills and need individual opportunities for two-way conversation in quiet surroundings - what they don't get from the TV."
Trained nursery staff can provide activities involving such individual talk, guiding children into a correct response, and building up listening and language skills.
But nursery schools with trained staff and the facilities to offer such help are few and far between, and the quality of pre-school provision is notoriously variable. Sally Ward recently visited a nursery where music blared from loudspeakers all day long ("to stimulate the children"), and playgroups run by untrained volunteers are seldom quiet havens where children can engage in one-to-one remedial language activities.
The majority of this growing band of children with poor listening skills arrive in reception classes unable to listen selectively. And as reception teachers are discovering, after four years' consolidation of their problems, it is no easy task to prepare children's ears for the business of learning to read.
In the current hysteria over literacy standards, many people hail phonics teaching as the answer to the nation's woes, and teachers are regularly berated for their lack of attention to the area. Phonics has undoubtedly been undervalued as a teaching strategy in the past, but Sally Ward's findings suggest social and environmental factors outside teachers' control have played a significant part in declining standards. When you're teaching phonics (or anything else) to a roomful of primary children, you soon notice there are none so deaf as those who cannot listen.
Sue Palmer is a teacher and educational writer. For details of her roadshows on phonics and other aspects of language teaching, send an SAE to Language Live, 11 St George's Road, Truro, Cornwall TR1 3JEuDr Sally Ward can be contacted at The Speech, Language and Hearing Centre, Christopher Place, Charlton Street, London NW1 1JF, tel: 0171 383 3834 * Teaching about sounds, page 14