One in six children have trouble talking

Nearly one child in six (17%) and nearly one quarter of boys experience some difficulties learning to talk according to a YouGov poll of 1,015 parents (of children aged between one and seven) in England published today by Jean Gross, England’s first Communication Champion for Children, as she begins her new job.

Boys are more likely than girls to experience difficulties with talking and understanding speech (22% compared with 13%) and are twice to have significant problems (5% against 2%). There were no marked differences according to the child’s social background but parents of nearly one child in four in the South West reported difficulties as compared to 10% in the East Midlands.

The survey, carried out last month, also found that only 54% of the children who had difficulties received help from a speech and language therapist. Others received help from nursery or playgroup staff/helpers but nearly a quarter (23%) did not get any help at all.

Jean Gross said, “Our ability to communicate is fundamental and underpins everything else. Learning to talk is one of the most important skills a child can master in the 21st century. The proportion of children who have difficulty learning to talk and understand speech is high, particularly among boys.

“It is essential that all children get the help they need from skilled professionals as early as possible. The lack of this is cause for great concern because the results of this poll shows that parents place learning to talk and listen as a top priority for their children, whatever their social class, and do a great deal to help them learn to communicate.”

The survey found that just over six in ten parents rated the ability to talk, listen and understand as the most important skill for children to develop in the early years. This priority came way ahead of the ability to interact with others (26%), reading skills (11%), numeracy skills (2%) and writing skills (1%).

It showed that parents are generally keen to promote their children’s communication skills. All those surveyed reported looking at picture books with their child, telling stories, playing word games and singing nursery rhymes, with boys and girls enjoying these activities equally and at a similar age. The survey showed that the majority of children (51%) did not enjoy looking at picture books with their parents until they were over six months old, but 18% enjoyed this at three months or younger. Children from more affluent families were reported to enjoy looking at picture books, and listening to stories and rhymes, at a younger age than children from less affluent families.

Parents were in general well informed about what to do if their child said a word or phrase incorrectly when speaking; nearly eight out of ten said (appropriately) that the best thing to do was to say it back to them in the correct way, but not point out the mistake. Fathers were less likely than mothers to take this approach, however, and more likely to correct the child. Less affluent parents were also more likely to do this than were more affluent families. Parents were less well informed about the best thing to do in families whose first language is not English; 58% thought that the parents should speak to their child mainly in English and encourage the child to do the same, whereas experts say that children with a firm grounding in the home language do best in later life.

The most common age for children to say their first word, according to the parents surveyed, was between 10 and 11 months. More girls than boys (34% against 27%) said their first word before they reached nine months. But 4% of children had not said their first word by the age of three. There were no real social class differences in when children said their first word.

Surprisingly 95% of parents could remember exactly what was their child’s first word. Less surprisingly the most common first word was “Dadda” or “dada” mentioned by 15% (see table below) as opposed to “Mama” or Mamma” (10%). 125 children said “Daddy” as opposed to 75 who said “Mummy” and “Dad” beat “Mum” by 99 first wordsters to 75. When the main parental epithets were discounted, the most common first word was “cat” with 19 cited instances, followed by “car” and “no” with 14 while “dog” and “yes” were cited 13 times and once respectively. Some of the more unusual first words cited were “beer”, “gadget”, “hoover”, “ohdear” and even “titsup”.

13-18 months was the most common age for children to start putting two words together (like ‘want drink’, ‘doggie gone’), and to understand simple instructions (like ‘pick up your teddy’, ‘throw me the ball’). Girls were on average quicker than boys to put two words together, with 22% having done this by the time they were one year old compared to 16% of boys, and 64% having done this by the age of eighteen months compared to 54% of boys.

10 most common first words

  1. Dada/Dadda – 15%
  2. Daddy – 13%
  3. Mama/Mamma – 10%
  4. Dad – 10%
  5. Mummy – 8%
  6. Mum – 7%
  7. Cat – 2%
  8. Car – 1%
  9. No – 1%
  10. Dog – 1%


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