Late last year, we ran a special blog series on teaching the reading brain. Much interest was generated from this and we thought it was timely to follow on from this with a series on teaching the speaking brain. Because today more than ever, teachers and parents are faced with the dilemmas of the digital era and the changes it brings to the way in which we communicate with our children. We know that, just as reading to your children before they start school is important to their future reading success, so is speaking to them in early childhood. But with the advent of digital devices rapidly impacting on more and more parts of our everyday lives, are we at risk of speaking and engaging with them less? Or if not less, in a less meaningful way?

Are we using tablets and smart phones as handy babysitting devices, used to distract toddlers from an impending tantrum? If driving while texting is dangerous and distracting, is child rearing while texting too frequently also questionable? We don’t raise these questions to judge or make parents feel guilty, as being parents ourselves we know the pressures of just getting through the day with a young child. But we think it’s important to at least be raising awareness around these issues.

The debate on such issues rages on amongst teaching and parenting experts and the digital world.  For instance, educational software has been shown to improve speaking and reading skills in certain areas. However, many teaching experts agree that it’s the educational quality of the program and how the program is being used that is crucial to maximizing speaking and learning opportunities with such technology. But in other areas of the debate, things are getting far more complicated and confusing. Right now, for instance, some physchologists are warning that distracting children too much with digital devices may diminish their social and emotional processing skills, preventing them from learning to get through the natural frustrations and upsets of childhood without relying on a technological fix!

What we do know is that neuroscience has shown that a rich environment of words, sounds, rhythms and rhymes from birth is crucial for language development and teaching the brain to speak. When infants listen to speech in their native language they activate regions on the left side of their brains. From birth to the age of 4, there is a ‘window’ for developing language. Where children are not exposed to language by the age of 4, the ability to acquire normal fluency is lost.*

The renowned language gap study of Hart & Risley, 2005, shows that socio-economic status of a child’s family has a great effect on their vocabulary development. By the age of 3, children from high socio-economic families have almost twice the number of words available to them than their low socio economic peers. Vocabulary and language skills are precursors for reading, writing and mathematics success.*

But what if new scientific studies go on to reveal that increased usage of digital devices also impacts on the number of words and quality of  language a child is exposed to in early childhood. Because we know that the quality of experience for language with your children is important too, not just the number of words they hear. If we take our child to the park and we are on the phone checking our emails, whilst pushing them on the swings, is this the same quality type of interaction as if we were not on the phone? Are we digitally multi-tasking too much to speak uninterrupted and with meaning to our kids? Are the more traditional ways we engage with our children being replaced with new ones?

To answer some of these burning questions, delve deeper into the science behind the speaking brain and offer up some novel ideas for how to enhance opportunities for language development, tune in next week for our next segment on teaching the speaking brain. Feel free to send us your thoughts and comments on these issues too!

Anna Milne - Founder.

family at park


*Extracts from Dr Duncan Milne’s book – Teaching the Brain: The New Science of Education.