Communication Breakdown

Speech delay, stunted vocabulary, reading poverty and blighted prospects

Image by Volker Glätsch from Pixabay

This article explores the reasons why ‘Communication’ is one of nine key learning priorities in the proposed MAC life-based learning programme for 5- to 11-year-olds.

The importance of communication to life

As children

Communication is fundamental to children’s development; children need to be able to understand and be understood. Communication is the foundation of relationships and is essential for learning, play and social interaction.

Hello: Why communication is important

In the workplace

Good communication is an essential tool in achieving productivity and maintaining strong working relationships at all levels of an organisation. Employers who invest time and energy into delivering clear lines of communication will rapidly build trust among employees, leading to increases in productivity, output and morale in general. Meanwhile, employees who communicate effectively with colleagues, managers and customers are always valuable assets to an organisation and it is a skill which can often set people apart from their competition when applying for jobs.

Michael Page: The importance of good communication in the workplace

In relationships

Relationships are not difficult to maintain, if they involve healthy communication among one other. When each one knows how the other person thinks and feels about certain things, there is more openness and freedom in the relation, thus making it easier to maintain it.

Love Bondings: Why communication is very important for a healthy relationship

The problem

An increasing number of children are arriving in school as four-year-olds with a very limited vocabulary; having not been read to as infants, they are unable to string a sentence together. The developmental gap in their learning hinders their academic progress throughout primary and secondary schooling.

The evidence

Blighted prospects

A new poll of more than 500 teachers from across the UK has revealed that children are joining primary school without the speech and language skills needed to learn in the classroom or start to read. Teachers surveyed said that many children never catch up and that this early language gap was dragging down school results and making it harder for them to deliver the curriculum for all children.

Save the Children: TEACHERS POLL: CHILDREN START SCHOOL STRUGGLING TO SPEAK IN FULL SENTENCES

Speech delay

More than a quarter of children starting primary school are unable to communicate in full sentences as concerns grow about the amount of time they are spending in front of screens.

The Guardian: Children starting school ‘cannot communicate in full sentences’

Stunted vocabulary

A US study concluded there is a ‘million word’ gap for children who are not read at home: that’s how many fewer words some may hear by the time they enter kindergarten [Science Daily].

Reading poverty

Children and young people’s daily reading levels are the lowest we’ve ever recorded, with just 25.8% of children saying they read daily in their free time in 2019.

Based on reading skills data for 712 pupils aged 11 to 14, young people who enjoy reading are three times more likely to read above the level expected for their age than children who don’t enjoy reading (30.1% vs 8.1%)

National Literacy Trust: Children and young people’s reading in 2019

Exam difficulties

Schoolchildren are struggling to answer exam questions because they have an increasingly limited vocabulary, UK teachers have warned.

Around 80% of the 1,300 teachers surveyed for an Oxford University Press study said that primary and secondary pupils were held back in exams by their language deficiency.

Almost half of Year 1 pupils suffer from this “word gap” to the extent that it affects their ability to learn, respondents said, and the problem only improves slightly with age – 43% of Year 7 pupils also underperform due to their limited vocabulary.

The Week: Pupils increasingly held back by limited vocabulary

Semi-literate university students with an imperfect grasp of the written language

Students are arriving at university without the basic skills which make coherent written work possible. This is no longer a problem affecting a few, to be dealt with peripherally by special needs units, or specially-timetabled remedial classes. In many places of higher education this year, the cohorts arriving to start their degrees will have a preponderance of students who are afflicted to a disabling degree by inadequate writing skills.

Royal Literary Fund: Writing matters

Tongue-tied as adults

… poor communication in workplace teams is common, and this can inhibit creative problem solving and lead to poor decision-making. The same applies to communication between staff and customers, carers and their clients, teachers and students, and many other occupational relationships.

Why is poor communication so common? The reason is that the ability to use spoken language effectively (oracy) has to be learned; and even highly intelligent people may not have learned how best to use talk to get things done.

It is also important, in a participatory democracy, that all people – not just those from privileged backgrounds – develop the ability to speak confidently in public, to present effective and persuasive arguments through speech, and to examine critically but constructively the arguments presented by others.

So it is very unfortunate that, unlike literacy and numeracy, oracy is rarely taught in schools. Government educational policy in the UK accords little value to teaching talk skills. This is also the case in most other countries.

And while educational research has shown that there are some very good ways of developing oracy skills, there is currently little contact between practitioners in school-based education and workplace training.

Oracy Cambridge: Welcome

The answer

There are any number of internet exhortations on the importance of reading to children. Here is an example linking reading to cognitive development:

By reading to children you provide them with a deep understanding about their world and fill their brains with background knowledge. They then use this acquired background knowledge to make senses of what they see, hear and read, which aids their cognitive development

High Speed Training: Why is reading so important for children?

The above article goes on to outline the benefits of reading, such as improved literary skills, more extensive vocabulary, better concentration, and higher levels of creativity and imagination.

The National Curriculum in England — as an example of a subject-based curriculum — places great emphasis on children improving their reading and writing skills. Indeed, English is one of its two core subjects, along with mathematics, to be prioritised above all other subjects.

At secondary level — for children aged 11 to 16 — specialist help is provided through organisations such as the Education Endowment Foundation. The approach taken by the EEF is for all teachers to teach literacy through their subjects.

Literacy is key to learning across all subjects in secondary school and a strong predictor of outcomes in later life.
• All teachers should be supported to understand how to teach students to read, write and communicate effectively in their subjects.

Education Endowment Foundation: Language and literacy

The obstacle

The obstacle is the narrow view of communication taken in the National Curriculum in England, with its emphasis on reading and writing. Not only is speaking given a back seat but also all other forms of communication.

This narrow view is made worse by the fact that English is seen as a subject in its own right, to be taught separately from other subjects. By the time children reach secondary school, teachers teaching their own subjects do not see their role as promoting the acquisition of language or as ensuring that students can express themselves both orally and in writing (hence the kind of training provided by the EFF exampled above).

The outcome is that teachers, parents and society as a whole regard other forms of communication of lesser value. Children’s ability to communicate in spoken and written English is all the poorer across all subjects.

The solution

The solution is to put English into the context of communication education in primary schools.

The Merged Action Curriculum (MAC) is an example of a life-based curriculum for children aged 5 to 11, giving a focus to communication education as one of nine equal learning domains.

Presence + Focus + Attention = Results

Urgent action needs to be taken to change the restrictive focus on English and mathematics in the subject-based approach to learning. We need children to acquire skills and abilities across the full spectrum of ways — verbal, visual and through art, dance, drama and music, not forgetting the specialist language of history, geography and other subjects — in which ‘information and understanding is passed from one person to another’ (a dictionary definition of communication).

You can read more about communication education through the indicative Communication Study Action Areas:

  1. Developing verbal communication skills
  2. Developing reading, writing and numeracy skills
  3. Communication through the expressive arts
  4. The environmental impact on communication

As children strengthen their ability to express themselves across the communication spectrum, the learning of English and mathematics will benefit.

Michael Mac