Fewer children starting school can speak in sentences,
prompting an investigation by education chiefs.
Primary schools around the country have noted a decline in
the spoken-language abilities of new entrants and the
Ministry of Education will look into the reports.
School leaders and a specialist in linguistics suspect the
problem could be down to children using gadgets too often and
parents not talking to them enough.
The ability of youngsters to express themselves in the
classroom is essential to their cognitive development and
Willowbank School in Auckland's Dannemora has started testing
all new entrants for oral language ability after staff
noticed many were struggling to speak in sentences.
Julie Cowan, deputy principal at the decile 9 school, said
conversations with other schools indicated they, too, were
noticing the problem among native English-speaking pupils.
Material put out by the ministry gives examples of what
children should be able to do upon starting school, including
asking questions about a picture, following directions in a
group setting and holding a conversation.
"Those are examples of the things we are finding quite a few
of our children are coming in and not being able to do," Mrs
New starters could have the spoken-language ability of 2- or
3-year-olds, and even those whom teachers viewed as "average"
often came in at levels below a 5-year-old.
Mrs Cowan believed there were many causes.
"Maybe the fact that children are spending more time on
devices and watching television is part of it.
"Talking as a parent, you are so busy and you have to get to
work and drop the kids off here, there and everywhere; we
spend a lot of time talking at our kids, not necessarily
talking with them."
Ministry executive Katrina Casey said the issue had been
raised anecdotally by principals and would be investigated.
The issue of pupils' speaking ability has been flagged in a
report by Benjamin Riley, who spent seven months with the
ministry and visiting schools as an Axford Fellow.
Mr Riley, who is from the US, was told by half a dozen
primary schools, including Willowbank, of a marked decline in
A deputy principal at Hampden St School in Nelson may even
take a 10-week sabbatical to work with a local early
childhood provider in an effort to shed light on the issue.
Mrs Cowan said Willowbank staff now did professional
development around teaching how to listen and speak.
Dr Jannie van Hees of the University of Auckland completed
her doctoral study on oral language in the classroom for 5-
She found that children in disadvantaged communities
generally start school with an expressive vocabulary of fewer
than 3000 words, compared with at least 6000 for children in
Further research was needed to confirm the causes, Dr Van
Hees said, but teachers' observations about a "worrisome"
trend shouldn't be ignored.
"I do think there are all sorts of factors. Children are
spending too much time in front of the digital devices and
hurrying from one place to the other.
"It is simple, free and easy to have conversations with your
children. But increasingly, I think, families aren't ... You
can't take for granted, just because you are educated
parents, that you talk effectively with children.
"The best growing linguistic time ... is just those simple
times of doing plain things with children but doing lots of
- by Nicholas Jones, NZ Herald