Modern Childhood > Info & links > Listening, Language And Communication Skills

For a quick summary of this issue, see the video below of Sue speaking at the Tory Party Conference in 2006:

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As a literacy specialist, it was concern about children’s listening and language skills that led me, over a decade ago, to begin researching child development in general. The speech and language therapist Dr Sally Ward recorded a disturbing deterioration in 9 month old children’s ability to tune into their mothers’ voice – from 20% giving cause for concern in 1984 to 40% in 1999. By 2006, the speech and language charity ICAN had discovered that in disadvantaged areas of the country, 50% and upwards of children were arriving at school with significant language delay.


So what's causing this disturbing decline in language and listening skills? The teachers, speech and language therapists and researchers whom I've interviewed over the last decade have come up with many explanations, including:

  • the huge explosion in communication technology in the last twenty years (especially the arrival of all-day TV, which fills homes with daylong noise, inhibits conversation, and draws the eyes of everyone to the screen – so adults and babies interact with each other far less often)
  • changes in parents' working patterns affecting the time available for spending with children
  • the widespread use of forward-facing buggies for transporting toddlers, making conversation between mother and child difficult
  • the decline of the family meal, and thus another significant opportunity for talk
  • specialist children's TV channels, meaning many children spend many hours each day viewing, rather than being involved in family activities or ‘real play’ with other children
  • the rise of computer gaming and social networking sites, which also take children away from real-life interaction with others
  • the increasing 'splintering' of families into separate rooms during leisure time (in 2005 the National Literacy Trust reported that 40% of four year olds and under have a TV in their bedroom, and the numbers are rising rapidly).
  • In a time of rapid social and cultural change, the possible contributory factors seem endless ('I blame central heating!' one teacher cried passionately, pointing out that in less affluent days families tended to huddle together in one room for warmth.)

It seems that, over the last fifty 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. As the developmental psychologist Margaret Donaldson said to me, "It could be that parents are talking less to their children than at any time in human history."

Adapted from ‘Talk to Me’, written by Sue Palmer for the Basic Skills Agency, 2006


But talk is only part of the development of communication skills – it’s estimated that 60 to 90 per cent of communication is non-verbal. The speech and language therapist Sioban Boyce has studied the significance of these skills, and written some excellent easy-to-read books about them. See

Another – but this time rather hard book – about early interaction is The Cradle of Thought by developmental psychopathologist Peter Hobson. I wrote an article attempting to summarise the main points for the Times Educational Supplement (see Here’s Looking at You, Kid! in Childhood Articles), and think his argument is one of the most cogent and profound I’ve come across throughout my research.

For more information on early language development, including several downloadable advice sheets, see

In 2008, Dr Suzanne Zeedyk conducted a research study about forward-facing buggies and communication skills. Here’s the report (PDF)

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