Why talking with young children matters

Around 43% of New Zealanders aged 16–64 have literacy levels below those regarded as the minimum required to participate fully in a digital economy and a modern society. So it was apt for the Talking Matters summit to run 2 days before International Literacy Day on 8 September.

In her opening speech at the COMET (City of Manukau Education Trust) led summit in Auckland, Talking Matters Director Alison Sutton said, “reading and writing floats on a sea of talk”. Indeed, during the course of the day, it became clear that lack of exposure to ‘talk’ during a child’s early years has a long-lasting impact on not just literacy skills, but also a child’s cognitive development.

Child and grandparent reading Reading by Bilwanath Chatterjee. CC BY 2.0

The summit brought together a heady line-up of speakers with over 250 cross-sector representatives from community organisations, health, education, libraries, child development and family services. Talking Matters aims to increase the amount and quality of language children engage with in whatever language they use in their early years. It's an aim that requires a collective approach, and the summit was an important step towards ensuring a shared understanding of what is an equity issue.

The importance of children’s voices

Among the keynote speakers was Children’s Commissioner, Judge Andrew Becroft, who overcame a childhood stutter through speech therapy. As a youth court judge, he realised all roads lead back to the importance of early language development. And, in a New Zealand “of inequality, marginalisation and poverty”, he wants to better understand the contribution of poverty and stress to language development.

He also spoke of the importance of encouraging language development to ensure children’s voices contribute to policy and actions, referring to article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, or UNCRC, the Right to be heard. “What are we doing to seek out their voices?"

Snapshot from the Growing up in New Zealand study

The growing gap between 'the haves' and 'the have nots' was one of a number of recurring themes throughout the day. In her keynote Growing up in New Zealand: What we know about the language of small children, Associate Professor Susan Morton said 16 government agencies had set up the Growing up in New Zealand study because problems identified in earlier longitudinal studies still existed. They wanted to know why, and what would allow children to thrive and achieve.

Among the study’s snapshot Now we are four findings was that there are 90 languages spoken in homes with a third of children having parents born outside of New Zealand. The study found a 12% gap in the number of words known by the age of 2 between the least and the most advantaged children and that there is also a gender gap. Girls know 8% more words than boys. These gaps existed regardless of whether the language was English or te reo Māori. By the age of 4 ½, that gap was widening. What the researchers want to find out is why the gaps exist and what can we do about it.

Sadly, the researchers also found that parents’ aspirations for their children at age 2 had been "blunted by the realities of disadvantage by the time the children were 4 ½.”

When the children were asked about their hopes and dreams once they turned 4½, they received responses ranging from museum worker, lego maker, mermaid and ballet teacher to my personal favourite, the child who wanted to be a hedgehog so they could poke their brother with their bristles!

Language exposure through reading with children

Wendy Nelson from the Brainwave focused on the importance of ensuring children experience a lot of quality language before 5 when the greatest period of brain development takes place.

The American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) recommends parents start reading to their baby every day from birth. Wendy emphasised the value of reading with children, using the example of Hairy Maclary to demonstrate the rich language in picture books.

It was an inspirational day and left me hopeful that the fledgling Talking Matters campaign has the support needed to see children flourish as thinkers, talkers and readers.

Find out more

Talking Matters Summit — a COMET Auckland initiative seed funded by the NEXT foundation.


Growing up in New Zealand reports

United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child

Reading aloud

By Jo Buchan

Jo is the Senior Specialist (Developing Readers) for Services to Schools.

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