Half of five-year-olds 'can't speak properly when they start primary school'


Last updated at 02:16 21 March 2008

Half of children are unable to speak properly when they start primary school, it was claimed yesterday.

Up to 300,000 are struggling to string a sentence together or to understand simple instructions by the age of five.

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Just starting school: But some youngsters struggle even to string a sentence together

Experts blame the growing problem on the death of conversation in the home, institutionalised childcare, "electronic babysitters" - where children are left simply to sit in front of the television - and the demise of the family meal.

They estimate it will cost the British taxpayer around £26billion to support those who suffer in later life because of their early language difficulties.

The shock findings emerged as part of a Government-commissioned review by Tory MP John Bercow of services for children with communication difficulties.

He has warned that youngsters with language problems are "slipping through the net or being cast adrift".

His report came as delegates at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers conference in Torquay yesterday suggested that some very young children hear only a handful of words such as "get up" and "bed" at home.

This means they are barely articulate by the time they reach primary school.

The children's communication charity I CAN, which sits on the review's expert panel, yesterday estimated that around 300,000 pupils start primary school each year with speech, language and communication problems.

Of these, 60,000 have specific disabilities such as stammering or suffer from other conditions including autism or cerebral palsy.

But 240,000 have "delayed" or impaired language skills due to social and environmental factors.

Their speech may be unclear, their vocabulary is smaller, sentences are shorter and "they are able to understand only simple instructions".

These youngsters are concentrated in disadvantaged areas, where up to half start school with language difficulties.

However, in Stoke-on-Trent, the figure has been found to be as high as 84 per cent.

The Bercow report warns there is a broad group of children and young people "whose needs may be primarily related to their social environment".

It says: "In some areas, particularly areas of social disadvantage, this group may be as large as 40 to 50 per cent of children at school entry."

Their needs can be addressed through "a language-rich environment", the report adds.

In a submission to the review, Jan Myles, assistant secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said that teachers are experiencing "underdeveloped parental language skills" in some deprived areas.

But she added: "In more affluent areas, it seems there are circumstances where some children experience a succession of childminders, because mum and dad are at work, or rely on the television or computer to babysit."

Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said last night: "My colleagues in early-years settings talk about children who are fairly monosyllabic when they come into school.

"One of the emphases in the early-years foundation stage is development of language and listening to stories and exploring words. We know that other skills like reading and writing follow the linguistic ability of children."

Literacy consultant Sue Palmer said that the "electronic babysitter" is becoming more and more of a problem.

She added: "If a child is genetically predispositioned to a problem with language, if he or she is in an environment where they are not being talked to and sung to, then there's more chance of the problem kicking in harder.

"Parents who haven't been talked to much or sung to themselves are in the third generation now.

"The old wisdom used to be passed on that the best way to comfort a baby was to pick it up and sing to it, but now we can just use the electronic babysitter.

"We have had these huge sociocultural changes and forgotten the basic stuff - that little babies need to be loved and talked to and sung to and they need to play.

"All we are doing is looking for complex, sophisticated solutions to the problem, rather than recognising that these things have gone missing."

Hugh McKinney, chairman of the National Family Campaign, said: "There's no doubt that effective family support is crucial for the upbringing of children.

"A stable family life and effective communication can add to effective educational outcomes.

"But successive governments have failed to grasp this and until effective family policies are in place, this situation will only get worse."

But Virginia Beardshaw, chief executive of I CAN, said: "People talk about the decline in children's communication skills.

"It certainly cannot be attributed to any one thing, be that games or television. It's a reflection of the full impact of 21st century living."

An earlier report by the Basic Skills Agency found that the art of conversation is dying as families do not make enough effort to talk to their children.

All-day television, the demise of the family meal and even forward-facing pushchairs are conspiring to destroy regular chat.

Children's Secretary Ed Balls said yesterday: "It is vital that children and young people with speech and language difficulties are identified at the earliest possible stage and the right support is then put in place."

The influx of immigrant children is undermining teachers' ability to do their jobs because schools lack the resources needed to cope, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers warned yesterday.

Schools are under growing strain as teachers try to take classes where up to a third of children are arrivals with poor English, the union said.

Schools need more cash to help them assimilate thousands of pupils every year from Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa, the ATL's Torquay conference heard.

The warning follows the release of official figures showing that children with English as their first language are in the minority in more than 1,300 primary and secondary schools.

Delegates passed a motion calling for extra funds to "meet the extra educational demands on schools brought about by the recent influx of children of refugee and EU migrant families."

It also demanded more help for schools that accept "disproportionately large" numbers of pupils for whom English is an additional language.

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