Hart and Risley · learning to talk · YouGov

Girl and boy talk

A survey, commissioned by the ‘Communication Champion’ Jean Gross, has just revealed that, apparently, nearly one in six children has difficulty learning to talk.
How the word ‘difficulty’ is defined is not made clear, though in any population, one would expect there to be a quantifiable number of children who make relatively slower progress in learning to talk than others of the same chronological age.
Speech acquisition follows a normal distribution, as does most other human attributes: some learn quicker than others! This is well understood and is not surprising. It only constitutes a problem when children are forced into formal learning situations when they are not developmentally ready for such experiences, as is often the case in the UK for children on the less mature end of the spectrum.
What made me laugh out loud was that ‘the survey found that around six in 10 parents believe the ability to talk, listen and understand are the most important skills for children to develop during their early years’. Does this mean that four out of ten didn’t?
Actually, we know what makes meaningful differences in early years vocabulary development. In a longitudinal study done by Betty Hart and Todd Risley* the difference between the ‘high vocabulary growth rates in professors’ children and the lower vocabulary rates of children from families in poverty’ was accounted for in the amount of talking that went on in families. And, in case you’re wondering, quality of talk was not the issue. Sheer quantity of talk with lots of positive feedback made all the difference.
* Hart, B. and Risley, T.R., (1995), Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children, (2007 edition), London, Paul Brookes Pub Co.

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