The Guardian recently released an article revealing that Clarks, the British shoe shop chain, has a new initiative for employees to engage in conversation with children in their stores.
This resonated with me because my mother is a primary school teacher and for years has highlighted the noticeable drop of children’s communication skills. I interviewed Liz Bacon, Early Years teacher at St Peter’s Roman Catholic Primary School, Rossendale, and Harry Dyer, lecturer in the School of Education and Lifelong Learning at UEA, for further insight.
I thought the importance of speaking to children from a young age meant conversing with them at dinner times. However, Bacon explained that it goes far beyond that. ‘It starts when babies are in their pram, which should be organised so the child is facing the adult to allow for interaction.’ Dyer said, ‘Talking to young people is hugely important. It is the basis for primary socialisation and the roots of how we learn what we call literacy.’
Although children should observe the world around them, it is vital that parents exercise their discussion skills. Bacon added, ‘All the way through as they grow, the development of their ‘talk’, their vocabulary, their understanding of language is key to their success in future life. And the way to achieve that is through talk and face-to-face interaction.’
It seems our educators really do have eagle eyes. Bacon said, ‘When a child starts school, it is clearly evident which families relish conversation, and which escape to screens.’ So, watch out parents, teachers are observant; they will know if you have been chatting to your kids.
One of the biggest knock-on effects in the drop in language skills is the need for more speech therapy in schools. Bacon said, ‘Over the last ten years, which has coincided with the growing plethora of screens, smart phones, tablets, in-car screens and 24-hour TV, teachers have discerned a growing need for speech intervention in school.’
Some children do genuinely have speech issues unrelated to their upbringing. However, Bacon explained, ‘there is a continually growing number whose difficulties could be linked to “speech silent” homes’.
However, Dyer said, ‘it’s brilliant that we’re getting better at diagnosing speech issues in young people and that we’re intervening at an earlier age. But I don’t see it as a crisis. I don’t see it as a current problem any more than it has been in the past. Children are learning a hell of a lot through technology and the internet. I think our definitions of literacy need to shift to meet them.’
I have always pictured bringing up my children with a bean bag-filled ‘reading corner’ where they would enjoy hot chocolate and reading Roald Dahl, without technology. However, Dyer doesn’t necessarily follow the same sentiment. He said, ‘I don’t think we should take young children away from screens. Plato was worried that books were ruining young people. This fear of new technologies is nothing new. There is a foundation for it, but we continue to evolve.’
I have realised that, of course, socialisation from a young age is important. But we shouldn’t be afraid of technology. Tablets and online learning games can be incredibly useful tools and we should embrace them. I was given access to the modern technology when I was growing up, but my mother also made sure to face my pram towards her. I am an extroverted conversationalist now, so I would say this approach worked quite well.