Wednesday 1 August 2018

How children speak. Do they?

There are a lot of misleading statements doing the rounds in connection with children's spoken language. First of all, we need to remember that no one speaks in what the Secretary of State for Education calls 'full sentences'. When we speak, we hesitate, interrupt ourselves (or each other), we speak over each other, we don't 'recapitulate' what the other person says and reply with short phrases or single words, we do 'ellipses' - that is we leave out a good deal because we understand each other from context, gesture, tone of voice, we use a lot of pronouns (it, she, he, we, I, etc and the words that go with the pronouns my, hers, his etc), we 'fade' (that is we don't finish a whole thought because it's clear from context or we change our mind half way) and so on.

Second, we should have a solid base line on any statements made by anyone talking about what children's language can or can't do. We should ask every time, 'what transcripts of children's speech are you using, that you base these judgements on?' and 'under what conditions did you make these recordings?' - follow-ups: 'were adults asking questions?' or 'were the children on their own?' 'Were they discussing or planning something together? were they engaged in imaginative or dramatic play?'

It is easy to think, as an adult, that we know how children speak based entirely on our own interactions with children and yet if you look closely and analyse how children speak when they are on their own, without adults present, discussing something that they need or want to discuss, and/or engaged in imaginative play, you see a very different picture. (We do this on our MA in Children's Literature at Goldsmiths, when we do the term we call 'Children's Literature in Action. We compare children's responses to books when they are being asked questions by a researcher/teacher, and when we leave children to discuss a book, sometimes with 'trigger' questions on a bit of paper, or sometimes 'freely'.)

Please if you hear anyone (including me!) make any statements about how children speak, please ask the questions above.

In my experience, very, very few people do base their judgements on this kind of work. Least of all secretaries of state for education.