Yet again another body of research confirms what any teacher working with deprived children knows. Children from deprived backgrounds are twice as likely to have speech and language difficulties than their peers from more affluent families. Setting aside the sociological theories regarding socially constructed ideas about what ‘normal’ speech and language is, how can we as a country allow this to continue?
Whichever way we choose to look at this state of affairs, it means poor chidlren are likely to start school with the cards seriously stacked against them. When speaking and listening skills are poor, writing and reading skills are usually poor too, after all if you can’t say it, there’s no way you can write it. Usually, this is the start of a continuously below average journey through education as it is unlikely they ever catch up. For these children, it is like beginning a race one hundred metres behind everyone else and everyone is fitter too. How could you catch up? Why would you even want to try either? (I’ve seen that look in their eyes all too often).
Experts and government busy bodies talk about early intervention at school and better training for teachers. This will have some impact, but the root of the problem lies in the way of life these children are born into. These children rarely engage in converstation (in any meaningful sense of the word) until they get to the alien world of school. At home they are not read to, listened to or talked to in a way that will promote the language development necessary to begin education. This is likely to have been the experience of their parents too, who lack speaking and listening skills themselves. It is already too late to turn this around by the time these children get to school.
I say, reach these children at birth! Don’t wait four years when it’s already too late! What would it cost to roll out a national new born literacy strategy for mothers on benefits with new babies? And I don’t care if we’re imposing our middle class ideologies onto others. Good! it will help them to have happier lives! Let’s give those mothers story CDs and speakers; give them nursery rhymes tapes, deliver books with the midwife; give them shopping vouchers when they attend story telling sessions with their babies. Throw everything at them. Think outside the box and let’s bring the wordy world to them the minute we can.
Children who hit their formative years struggling with literacy skills are being deprived of the great joy of literacy, the therapy reading and writing bring to our lives, and throughout our lives too. Our prisons are full of people who’ve never picked up a book under their own volition and can’t write a simple sentence either. It’s time we thought of literacy in the home just like anything else we as a society ensure is provided for our children. It might not be vital to life, but today literacy is vital to a quality of life everyone deserves.