When do the children see the adults talking?

Every year, the tally of children rocking up to reception year with speech and language deficits seems to increase; some have an American accent (!), some have no clear consonant sounds, some have a severely limited vocabulary and some don’t speak at all. I think pretty much everyone is in agreement about the positive effects of sharing civilised conversation and food at the dinner table on children’s emotional and intellectual development (research shows it is better for building vocabulary than reading to children*) and how lack of dinner table conversation may impact on development, but have we taken the opportunity to look at the life of a disadvantaged child to see when exactly they might have any kind of adult conversation modeled to them? For some children I fear are not seeing or hearing civilised conversation at all. What’s going on?

  • Even where communal dining experiences happen, children are now allowed to interject, talk over or even dominate the topics of conversation (this is, I think, more prevalent among middle class families) which effectively prevents them from learning to politely sit and listen and maybe pick up the plethora of subtle words, phrases and concepts from adults who are conversing around them.
  • When eating out, children are quite often given an iPad or a phone to entertain themselves with, so they are effectively sent into a conversation-less and self-absorbed bubble. Even teenagers are allowed to opt out in this scenario.
  • Adults tend not to talk on the phone and instead prefer to use some kind of text messaging app/service. I’m pretty sure that I would’ve learned so much from hearing my mum gossip away on the phone, but I’ll admit that my own children never hear me on the phone (I avoid it, partly because I’ve been conditioned to ‘put the children first’ and always be at their service).
  • Nobody goes to church any more, or even regularly attends village gatherings, so children don’t get to regularly see or hear any kind of script for conversing with various types of people (strangers, close friends and family). What do people regularly do? Shopping. Not much conversation there, other than “Do you have this in my size?” and generally treating fellow man like The Help.
  • Single-parenthood. For a while, a couple of years ago, I was on my own; I’m very sure that my children would’ve suffered from not seeing any kind of regular intellectual or caring adult conversation modeled to them (although I always engage my own children at the dinner table) during that time. This must be the case for the hundreds of thousands of children who (mainly) live with one parent (usually the mum). That one parent must also experience some kind of conversational-ability attrition rate due to the fact that they are tied to looking after their children 24-7, sometimes without any respite at all.
  • Even at nurseries and playgroups, years ago you would let your little ones go and play with all the toys or join in with singing while you sat with a cup of coffee and nattered to a fellow mum, knowing full well that a few toddlers around you would be eavesdropping, but nowadays (actually, this might just be my observation) it seems as if every mum must forgo that coffee and a natter and join in with the singing and playing down on the floor (which knackers your knees!). Upshot: no adult conversation to be heard.
  • In the classroom, the TA is either not there (as in my case) or has been brow-beaten into maximising ‘teaching and learning’ by shoe-horning interventions into every crevice of the day. The upshot is that they never see the teacher and TA ask each other how they are. Further, at lunchtime, I’m flapping about with meetings, clubs and preparing for the afternoon such that I never stop to have even the briefest of conversations with a colleague. Essentially, the children in my class could just see a servile automaton constantly teaching and handing out worksheets/scaffolds etc and I’m sure many other children up and down the country are experiencing the same thing.

It amazes me that while we espouse the benefits of learning a new language through ‘immersion‘, we collectively conspire to immerse our youngest generations in nothing at all. We then teach them how to read and write (using systematic synthetic phonics instruction – the best way to learn to read), but they do not understand the words or phrases and they have fewer words, phrases and facts in their heads to write. Nursery and playgroup leaders can only do so much, as can EYFS reception year teachers. What can be done? What do we need?

  • A massive, collective realisation of how we are effectively going backwards as a species in terms of emotional and cultural intelligence.
  • A campaign to ‘bring back conversation’ to our daily lives (‘Conversation is not just for Christmas dinner, it’s for life!).
  • Non-patronising information for parents about the importance of not limiting adult conversation when looking after children.
  • Subtle opportunities for children to hear adults at school be nice to each other and talk about interesting things – perhaps more break times or even not being so frantic about deploying the TA.
  • We could even go as far as to have teachers sat near to children at lunches, but my fear in this case would be that teachers would be minded to only talk to children about what the children want to talk about which doesn’t exactly teach them how to take turns, be nice or hear a bigger range of vocabulary and phrases. In many cases, teachers would just end up doing constant behaviour management (“Stop throwing the fork on the floor!”) which would be depressing and exhausting.

I did see one EYFS reception year in a private school integrate snack time as part of their ‘whole-child’ education. The children were taught a script for serving each other juice/milk (out of jugs!) and plain biscuits while the teachers sat with them asking them about their day, expecting the children to do the same back. At lunch, the children were sat with a teacher being shown how to sit up straight, use a knife and fork properly and, again, have civilised conversation. It helped that the class sizes were much smaller. In state schools I have only ever seen rushed snack times where the adults run around waiting on the children hand and foot and the children might have the whiteboards out or some kind of instructional video on. Very interesting. I guess if Ofsted came though, they would see ‘No wasted opportunities for teaching and learning’.


It does help if you are actually teaching, rather than getting children to constantly [not] discover, do group-work etc because at least that way the ratio of adult talk to child-talk is better, even if they’re not hearing any kind of day-to-day vocabulary and phrases. However, if behaviour is poor then children are only really hearing short snippets of interesting sentences punctuated with relentless reminders to ‘do the right thing’ such as refraining from poking each other, playing with rulers, fiddling with shoes, talking over the teacher, calling out, making silly noises, humming, using the mini WBs for cartoon practice etc combined with regular praise for those children who are doing the right thing.

Anyway, the least we can do is be aware of how children need to hear at least a little bit of adult, civilised conversation.

Who’s with me?

*I’m not saying we shouldn’t read to children, in case anyone gets the Venn diagrams in their heads mixed up. In fact, we should read lots of stories to children!


6 thoughts on “When do the children see the adults talking?

  1. Interesting but not the responsibility of the school.

    Maybe you just need to go to parents and say that their child has “speech and language deficits” due to their lack of exposure to “civilised conversation” outside of school. Tell them that their kid won’t be admitted to school while they retain such deficits.

    Parents should perhaps be trained to engage in civilised conversation before they are allowed to have children at all. Maybe some kind of SATs type test and if they pass then they should be allowed to have kids, otherwise not.

    If we built such a qualification into KS4/5 then kids could become qualified parents while in school, then they would have no excuse. If we build into KS1, KS2 and KS3 the best that has been learned and taught then the next generation would not make the mistakes of the current and recent ones.

    I think the issue is that we allow these people to have children at all. Maybe we should simply sterilise all males and females who do not come up to scratch at the end of KS4. Perhaps a cut off at 40% or if we really want to solve civilisation’s problems 50%.

    There would no longer be such a thing as a disadvantaged background, everyone would be advantaged. Kids would arrive in school ready to listen, track and learn. Teachers could just tell them and make them practise. No need to mark as they would all just soak it up like a sponge.

    With less kids we would need less teachers so the budget would allow Government to increase teacher pay in line with their dramatically increased results. We could instal cameras so that Google could simply use picture recognition to recognise where teaching was not continuous during the school day or when a kid didn’t track properly.

    We could install cameras in kids homes just in case conversations became just a little too civilised requiring intervention. Parents could be invited to the Ministry of Conversation for corrective action which would ensure that conversation met the “civilised standard”.

    I am with you, civilised conversation is what we need for conformity and obedience.


    • I think many parents don’t see the cumulative effect of good conversation and reading because they have no frame of reference (we teachers get to compare). Also, they are repeatedly told by the profession that we can bring up their children for them – so to some extent we brought this on ourselves!


    • Brian–we live in a welfare state which systematically usurps the authority of parents, while at the same time progressive educational practices have denied the last two or even three generations the most basic cultural knowledge–and your solution is to turn the UK into a Maoist police state.

      None of this is necessary. Parents who live the most rackety lives do so more out of despair than anything else, but give them hope for their children’s future and it can transform their lives. In 1994 Prof Tommy MacKay, an educational psychologist, started working with teachers in the 46 primary schools in West Dunbartonshire, which is second only to Glasgow in terms of dismal social indicators. For the first three years, he initiated a programme focussed on behaviour in the playground; he was able to convince teachers that it was possible to hold pupils to the same standards as middle-class schools. Behaviour improved so dramatically that he won the complete confidence of teachers, and then he introduced a rigorous synthetic phonics programme, with focussed intervention for slow learners. Ten years later, all pupils left primary school with a reading age of at least 9 1/2–enough to read and understand the Daily Mail (or these days, even the Telegraph).

      In 2007 I delivered a talk to about 25 of these teachers, and I have never met such a confident, knowledgeable and switched-on group of teachers. They were justly proud of their achievement. However, they all admitted that they couldn’t have done it without the parents, who eagerly responded once they realised that they weren’t being patronised as they normally are by social workers and teachers. I could well believe it–in 2002, we worked in a primary school in one of Norwich’s sink estates, and my blood boiled to hear the way teachers mocked the parents behind their backs in the staff room. When we talked to parents privately, they were desperately grateful for the help we were giving their children, who had wasted the first year and a half of their schooling without even learning basic letter sounds, let alone how they combine to form words. I already knew from our family literacy programme at a Norwich comprehensive that parents from social housing were even more eager than middle-class parents to work with their children at home.

      So please leave out your suggestion that inadequate parents ought to be sterilised. It has already been tried in Germany, with disastrous consequences.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hi Tom, I’m a new teacher and live in Scotland’s Central Belt, trying to find like minded colleagues. Would you be able to offer any other details around the schools, HT’s, T’s involved with Tommy MacKay’s initiative?


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