No need to despair over children with below average language skills. Just shut up, it is very likely they will begin to open up, say Australian researchers.
A University of Sydney study has found children with well below average language skills performed almost as well as their normally developing peers just four months after their parents made a few simple changes in the way they interacted with them.
Researchers worked with four- and five-year-olds attending DET NSW preschools in the Mount Druitt area, and their parents. They taught the parents (mostly mothers) of children with language difficulties to use simple strategies to develop their child's language skills.
The strategies were used while reading books and during everyday conversations and included: pausing to allow the child an opportunity to talk about a topic of interest to them; asking open-ended questions; and encouraging the child to talk more on their chosen topics.
"When adults were taught to speak less, children were able to speak more," said Dr Susan Colmar, a lecturer in the Faculty of Education and Social Work who led the research with Louise Davey, a student research associate from the University of Bath. Dr Colmar said these findings confirm earlier studies she has conducted.
"The children who received the book-reading language-intervention for four months improved, on average, five times more in understanding language (receptive language) than a control group, and made 10 times the gains of typically developing peers", Dr Colmar said.
"In terms of talking or speaking (expressive language) the children involved in the intervention made two and a half times the gains of the control group, whilst the typically developing comparison children's scores did not improve at all."
Dr Colmar said the strategies she demonstrated to parents, such as changing book reading from an adult controlled activity to a child centred one, carried over into everyday conversations. "In addition books are a wonderful source of conversational topics, with the advantage of picture stimuli, potentially a range of new and varied vocabulary, and a storyline to enhance conversation building".
"The parents' capacity to learn and successfully use a set of simple new strategies also confirms the importance of direct parent involvement in child learning," she said.
Research shows how well we learn language has major implications for our progress in school and our life chances. According to Dr Colmar an estimated 10 per cent of children under six experience serious language delays and difficulties.