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Children need to learn to speak well to function in society

Miriam McKenzie

13:42, Jun 03 2019

OPINION: What are the results of poor oral language in children? 

It can lead to rising levels of anxiety, and not having the ability to articulate feelings results in a lot of challenging behaviours - sometimes violent behaviours like bullying.

Children that have a reduced vocabulary don't engage in conversation, and they struggle in school with reading and writing.

New Zealand is involved in several research projects that compare education outcomes between countries. 

The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) is overseen by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), and this study assesses middle-primary school children's reading literacy every five years (New Zealand Year 5 students).

In 2017, it found New Zealand's literacy levels were lower than 20 other countries in the OECD and have decreased significantly since the study began in 2001.

It is well known in education that oral literacy, reading and writing go hand in hand.

There are many aspects to oral language, many different types of talking, but if a child does not have a good grasp of the oral language they will stumble along the "communication pyramid".

Teaching children to communicate with clear speech begins in the home.

Even before birth, babies in utero can hear sounds and react to voices they hear frequently.

After birth; direct eye contact, hugs and cuddles, quiet speech, humming and singing all contribute to building the "pyramid of communication", which is essential for a child to learn how to speak well.

The Harvard School of Education recently released its latest research that "conversational turns" not only increases children's ability in oral literacy but also has a large impact on brain development.

This means asking open-ended questions so the response can't be one word and it encourages further responses so the conversation moves from adult to child, back and forth like a see-saw.  

Building up a vocabulary store is also crucial.

These are not built through flash cards or "educational" tv/youtube channels.

Life experiences can be as simple as your child helping you to hang out the washing, mowing the lawn, weeding the garden, going to a walk around the local reserve. Many easy and free activities that bring new knowledge to their world.

A couple of years ago when assisting a five-year-old old into a swimming pool in Invercargill, he said: "Oh, it's wet".

He had never had that experience before and he didn't know how it was going to feel, what was going to happen, the smell of the pool even the noise of the pool.

So many little things add up to a great vocabulary store.

The reasons for children needing to speak well are numerous. Not just for learning how to read and write but for the speech itself and the ability to be able to communicate thoughts and feeling.

The effects of not teaching our children how to communicate and articulate their feelings can have a catastrophic result.

For example; a child who has only heard instructions for the majority of their first five years will not have the vocabulary to hold a conversation at 14.

Children left too long on devices can build their own reality inside their head and trying to dissuade them from their beliefs instead of fact can be impossible. It is called Cognitive Dissonance. No risks are involved in being engaged with a screen so children don't have the opportunity to develop character strengths that are required for resilience.

As our children grow into teenagers the effects of poor oral language have a direct impact on our communities and society.

Those children who present with behaviours that bring them to the youth court are not able to communicate their actions around crimes they may have committed. They struggle to present themselves in interview situations or even explain themselves clearly when asked simple questions.

The areas of concern around poor oral language in our children is far-reaching and as parents are the children's first teachers it is up to us in our homes to do our best to give our children opportunities for them to grow into their best.

We, none of us, are perfect but it does take time and energy.

Dame Whina Cooper said. "Take care of our children. Take care of what they hear, take care of what they see, take care of what they feel. For how the children grow, so will the shape of Aotearoa."

* Miriam McKenzie, Say It Clearly Ltd

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