Parents, children lose art of conversation

All-day television, the demise of the family meal and even the forward-facing design of pushchairs are conspiring to kill the art of conversation between parents and children. The results have "alarming implications" for pupil behaviour in the first few years of primary school, says a pamphlet to be published this week by Britain's Basic Skills Agency (BSA), the body responsible for improving literacy and numeracy.

Children resort to tantrums because they arrive at school as new entrants unable to express themselves, it argues. "Children who can't tune in to what the teacher is saying or express their own feelings and needs adequately are at a greater risk of misunderstandings, which may often lead to disruptive behaviour," the pamphlet says. "Once they find themselves in trouble in school, it's all too easy for them to spiral down into behaviour problems with a knock-on effect on learning." The pamphlet, published to coincide with the launch of a "talk to me" campaign by the BSA, argues that the biggest problem for primary schools is teaching children how to speak and listen, skills they should have learned before they started school. Its author, Sue Palmer, a literacy consultant, says: "In 10 years as a travelling literacy specialist, I've talked to tens of thousands of primary teachers - and all over the country they've told me the same thing: children's speaking and listening skills seem to be deteriorating. "Infant teachers are especially alarmed by the levels of language of each new intake and the difficulties children have in settling down in class."

The BSA is urging schools to meet parents to explain to them the importance of conversing with their children. However, the odds seem stacked against them, according to the pamphlet. All-day television fills homes with noise, making it difficult to talk. Changes in parents' working patterns mean they have less time for the children and this is leading to the decline of the family meal, another important time for conversation. Family members are also spending less time together in the same room. A survey by the National Literacy Trust estimated that 40 per cent of children aged 4 and under have a television in their bedroom and the number is rising.

Another contributory factor is believed to be the design of children's buggies. Forward-facing models make it more difficult for parents to talk to their infants. "Over the last 50 years - but increasingly over the last couple of decades - unexpected side effects of social change and technological advances have conspired to reduce the amount of conversation between parents and children," Ms Palmer says. Margaret Donaldson, a child developmental psychologist, said: "It could be that parents are talking less to their children than at any time in human history." The problem is not just with youngsters from deprived homes - although it is most acute in that category, the pamphlet says. "The contributory factors listed above would affect children whatever their social or economic background."

Alan Wells, the director of the BSA, said: "A lot of relatively affluent parents buy themselves out of having to spend time with their children. They buy all sorts of technological toys. To their own thinking, they then don't have to give them too much attention." The pamphlet urges parents to make sure they listen to their children as well as talk to them. It says an improvement in children's communication skills will have a knock-on effect in almost every other area of the curriculum. "It's clear that children can't be expected to learn to read and write unless they can first speak and listen," says Ms Palmer.

Why families don't talk any more:

  • All-day television: Constant barrage of noise in the home inhibits conversation.
  • Changing work patterns: More households where both parents are working and therefore have less time for children and less energy.
  • Buggy designs: The increasing popularity of forward-facing pushchairs makes it more difficult for parents to talk to young children.
  • Separate rooms: Forty per cent of under-5s have televisions in their bedrooms and the number is rising rapidly.
  • Children's channels: Proliferation of television channels specifically for children has resulted in more viewing.

Source: Basic Skills Agency, UK.
4 April 2006

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