Pause for talk can fix preschool language problems

10 February 2010

Preschool children whose language skills were well below average had recovered almost all their their lost ground just four months after their parents made a few simple changes in the way they interacted with them, according to a Faculty of Education and Social Work study.

Researchers, led by Dr Susan Colmar, worked with children aged between four and five years who were attending DET NSW preschools in the Mount Druitt area, and their parents. The parents (mostly mothers) of children with language difficulties were taught 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.

Dr Colmar said that when the adults were taught to speak less, the children were able to speak more, confirming 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 than a control group, and made 10 times the gains of typically developing peers," she said.

"In terms of using language, the gains were two-and-a-half and times the gains of the control group."

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.

"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 years old experience serious language delays and difficulties.