Children’s vocabulary skills declining at start of secondary school

20th April 2018C

Talk Radio – Martin Kelner overnight show

The prompt for my involvement in a discussion about the impact of children’s poor vocabulary on their school attainment came from an article by journalist Hannah Richardson on the BBC web site:

Language development in our young is a fascinating subject and language has exercised academics, health and education professionals over the centuries.  Jean Paul Rousseau, (1712 – 1778) a French philosopher, held the view that language, along with a prohibition on incest, were the key distinguishing characteristics of being human.  There have been many studies highlighting this distinctly human and innate language capacity and key names in the field include Chomsky, Piaget, Luria and Vygotsky.  The sheer complexity of human language systems is daunting when reduced to numerical facts, for example; there are over 6,000 languages in the world, which share a common design including sounds, meanings and structures that go to make up a mind-boggling 100 million, trillion sentences of combinations of 20+ words.

The BBC’s article described some Oxford University Press research with 800 English secondary schools claiming that substantial numbers of Year 7 pupils, i.e. four out of 10 have such a limited vocabulary it is affecting their school performance and that this situation is worsening.  The ‘Communication Trust’, an amalgam of over 50 community voluntary organisations including ICAN, AFASIC and the Council for Disabled Children agrees and states that poor spoken language is linked to poor literacy, behaviour, social and emotional development and poor attainment in general.

The Communication Trust

Children’s language development is a gradual and incremental one, over time and directly reflects their exposure to language.  Children are estimated to increase their vocabulary by between 3, 000 and 5,000 words a year.  This includes conversations with parents, siblings and friends, professionals in Education and anyone else with whom they come into contact.  In addition, what they read, view and hear through the many forms of media contributes to their language context. The Oxford University Press research states that teachers from the 800 secondaries involved attributed the “word gap” to too little reading for pleasure. 

As Bernstein, a British sociologist stated: “language makes infinite use of finite media”. He also developed a sociology-cultural theory of language and communication development, which centred around social identity and his earliest works are best known for his ideas about ‘restricted’ and ‘elaborate’ codes of language and communication of working-class and middle-class families respectively. These ideas were subsequently developed and built upon by other researchers.

As a psychologist I am always interested to find out about children’s language contexts, not just the vocabulary to which they are exposed but also the relational context, i.e. how, why, when and where people speak in their families, learning and community situations.  family – parents – quality, quantity, models of a language. 

Parents and teachers provide important and every-day models of language and communication to the young with whom they are involved. 

So where does this all this lead? When the “so what?” test is applied, what does all this tell us about how can we help young people to develop their language and communication skills? Here is an acronym, which includes some of my top tips:

S peak with your child about words, language and about how people speak- make it an everyday, curious, and light-hearted conversation

P osition yourself when speaking with your child in such a way that is not intimidating or uncomfortable, e.g. eyeball-to-eyeball

E njoy the inevitably different viewpoints of your children and listen with respect

A ctivities that promote talk and conversation should be a family priority, e.g. shared interests, films, mealtimes, festivals and celebrations

K now that in time, the vast majority of moody, sometimes monosyllabic adolescents will develop into someone with whom you can talk more easily

I nitiate conversations sometimes but make sure you are open to your child’s attempts to begin a conversation and make time to talk

N  ever ridicule, shame or chastise a child’s manner of talking.  State your values and rules about things like swearing and slang in a calm and clear way but not in such a way that communication breaks down

G ive enough TIME for the child to take information in, understand, express and question – the 10 second rule is useful here

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