Tablets or talk: how do pre-schoolers learn language?

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The other day I came across research on ‘teaching’ Mandarin to nine-month-olds, comparing the effects of face-to-face tuition with those of tuition delivered via video or audio.


Jean Gross

The other day I came across research on ‘teaching’ Mandarin to nine-month-olds, comparing the effects of face-to-face tuition with those of tuition delivered via video or audio. The researchers expected the children who’d watched the videos to show the same kind of learning as those tutored face-to-face. Instead, they found a huge difference. The children exposed to the language through human interactions were able to discriminate between similar Mandarin sounds as well as native listeners. But the other children – regardless of whether they had watched the video or listened to the audio – showed no learning at all.

At the same time, exciting work at the National Literacy Trust is showing that the use of technology has huge potential to improve language and literacy in the early years, particularly in reducing inequalities. Their research shows that children from low-income families are more likely to have a wider vocabulary if they read stories in both print form and on a touch-screen.

How are we to make sense of all this? One way to find out will be at the National Literacy Trust’s annual Talk to Your Baby conference on 29 February, which I’m chairing this year. The programme includes presentations on using digital technology in playful and creative ways. I’m really looking forward to having some of my prejudices challenged!

Why birth to three matters most

Talk to Your Baby has been a great initiative and one I’m delighted to support. The longer I spent as the Government’s communication champion for children, the more I became convinced that the time to make a real difference to language development is very early – maybe even before the age of two.

Why? Because research has shown that children’s language skills at two (their understanding and use of vocabulary and use of two- or three-word sentences) are uniquely predictive of their academic and behavioural functioning at school entry. And the fascinating Growing up in Scotland longitudinal study found that progress in language between the ages of three and five was strongly predicted by language skills at two. This was particularly true for children whose parents had no or lower qualifications. Their poor early communication skills were found to persist through the three to five period. In other words, they needed very early help if they were to catch up.

What’s new in communication and language

The integrated two-year review, cuts to speech and language therapy services, and the increased numbers of Government-funded early education places for two-year-olds have brought into sharp relief our language provision for under-threes. Have we, for example, got the environment right for two-year-olds? What can we do to support parents in their earliest interactions with babies and toddlers, so as to promote good language development?

Fortunately, there is lots going on to help us. In England, there’s the Lottery-funded A Better Start programme, which is putting big money into five local areas to develop evidence-based, community-led approaches to early child development. The first director of Sure Start and honorary research fellow at Oxford University Naomi Eisenstadt is going to give us an update on A Better Start at the Talk to Your Baby conference. Wales of course has been working on early intervention for even longer, through its exciting Flying Start initiative, which we will also hear about at the conference.

Then there are new short-term small group programmes such as ICAN’s Early Talk Boost, Bookstart Corner to help parents at home and in children’s centre sessions, and the National Literacy Trust’s Government-funded HELLO (Helping Early Language and Literacy Outcomes) programme – working in more than 70 early years settings to improve language outcomes for the birth-to-three age group.

One to watch

But, finally, back to where I started – whether very young children learn best through face-to-face interactions and, if so, what we can do to support these interactions. Here I’ve been looking at early drafts of a review of the evidence on what works, which is coming out in March from the Early Intervention Foundation. It’s fascinating stuff, so do look out for it.

The National Literacy Trust’s Talk to Your Baby conference takes place on 29 February in London. For more information and to book your place, visit

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