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~@!!?**! Or how many times do you need to hear a word before you remember it?

Date posted: Wednesday 30th January 2013

Audrey HepburnWhen I was 13 I saw the film Charade, starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn.

I had never heard of Audrey Hepburn before, but her name (and face) stuck in my mind instantly and forever. When I was 21 I had the same experience with Nastassja Kinski. That was around the time I was studying to be a Speech and Language Therapist. One of our first lectures was led by Professor Soandso from Suchandsuch University. His opening line was “Of course you all realise that a child has to hear a word 500 times before he can start using it.”

We were very impressed, but I remember thinking, “that’s a huge amount of talking I’ve got to do to help children with language learning needs.” So impressed was I with this idea, that I instantly took it to heart, and for a few years after I qualified lived by the idea that the more you tell children the name of things, the quicker they will learn them. (It was only later that I began to listen and respond more, and talk less, but that’s another story.)

Soon after I qualified I gave a talk to a parents’ group at a local playgroup, on an estate only a stone’s throw from the walls of a well-known prison in North London. That’s where I met little Stacey’s gran, Betty. Betty was described as a ‘well known character on the estate’. This was my first attempt at public speaking, so I had my first line ready: “Of course you all realise that a child has to hear a word 500 times before he can start using it.”

“What a load of **** !” interjected Betty. We hadn’t covered how to deal with swearing grannies in our public speaking workshops, so I was a bit thrown by Betty’s remark. The playgroup staff’s sniggering didn’t help either. Then I remembered how we were taught to deal with difficult questions: just ask the questioners to tell you what they think.

“What do you think then?”

“I’ll tell you what I ****ing well think!”

“Go on,” I said, encouragingly.

“I’ll ****ing go on! The other day I was pushing Stacey’s little brother Ronnie in his buggy through the market. I heard this geezer shout to his dog,” Come hear you stupid ****er!!” Well Ronnie only heard that swear word once and he hasn’t stopped using it since!”

I think for the rest of my talk I stressed the importance of playing with your children, or some such safe subject. But Betty had a point: you only have to hear some words once, and they instantly stick in your mind. For me it was ‘Audrey Hepburn’. Other words just seem to be instantly forgettable. Some words are exciting because of the emotion behind them, the impact they have on other people and the response you get when you say them: e.g. a little child swearing!

In those days we wouldn’t have had the nerve to ask an esteemed visiting lecturer to quote the research evidence to back up his ‘500 times per new word’ claim. But had Betty been training to be a Speech and Language Therapist, the professor would have told her that children up to about 15 months do need to hear words a lot of times in context before they start using them: as part of everyday life, in songs and when sharing books. It seems that they need to have between 50 and 75 words that they know and use really well. Then they reach a ‘word spurt’, where they only need to hear certain words a few times before they start to use them.

However these words have to be interesting and related to people they meet, activities they are involved in and objects that they can handle. These include people’s names, exciting objects (food, toys, clothes etc.) or things that really take their fancy: aeroplanes, cars, animals, washing machines, phones, the moon, trees, birds… anything! Most importantly, they need to hear these words as part of conversations, where adults have time to listen to them, and respond to their efforts to name everything that is going on around them. This also applies to older children with additional language learning needs, who need more time and encouragement to be involved in these conversations.

So if a child is in a day care setting, she will need as many adults around her as possible: who have time to engage her in chat; e.g. sharing a book or responding to what she is saying and giving her more words to get excited about.

This is a very powerful reason for recommending that the number of adults needed for any given group of children should be increased wherever possible, and certainly not reduced!

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17 responses to “~@!!?**! Or how many times do you need to hear a word before you remember it?”

  1. Auntie Ruth's Childminding says:

    Hi Michael

    Another great blog. I feel as an early years practitioner I am one of the best resources. Being listened to and receiving a positive adult or peer response is so very important in the early years. To expect practitioners to share themselves with 5 or 6 toddlers is unfair to all, these young children need 1:1 attention constantly. The new proposals will reduce the opportunity of quality mutual communication.



  2. moriel gidney says:

    Great stuff. My staff would rather have lesser rates of pay and higher rates of staffing because we enjoy the work when it is not pressured. It becomes pressured when you are trying to meet the diverse needs of too many children and too many expectations.
    Children need quality interaction – clear, appropriate speech, funny, imaginative, informative…relationships.
    More staff, more time to interact, more chances to hear and respond, more job satisfaction, more fun.
    This afternoon – amazingly – there were three two year olds before the others woke and two staff. What a lovely time we had and how clear it was to me that the new ratios are bordering on criminal.

  3. Sian Ansell says:

    Interestingly I recently was watching Patricia Kuhl presenting her research on the linguistic genius of babies which evidences the importance of face to face experiences in supporting babies developing understanding of speech and language. Yet another reason why two’s and unders need that responsive key person providing reassurance, attention , encouragement, etc, thereby reducing stress (e.g cortisol ) have a look at it on TED I wonder what you think?

    • Michael Jones says:

      Thanks Sian.
      That is a fantastic TED talk! Yes, we can see that the role of staff in the ‘baby room’ in daycare settings is crucial.
      Attached is an article that I wrote about this subject. many writers are quoting Sue Gerhardt’s work, and also Dr Brazelton, and this is having a huge impact on day care. Let’s hope that adult child ratios stay the same or improve!
      Best wishes

  4. Mary Field says:

    This is very interesting! Do we have to reduce our expectations of how quickly an EAL child should begin to talk in an English setting? Practitioners often want to know, when will this child start to speak. 500 times is a lot and it would take some time to hear enough words this may times to confidently speak out!

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hello Mary
      Please see my reply to Katja. The children in your setting really do get the best experience of English: from the adults and, crucially from talking and playing with other children.
      I think the ‘500 words per new word’ number is a bit arbitrary, and only really applies to babies who are working towards their first words and during the start of the first word stage. Children learning a SECOND language have the advantage that they are older and more experienced. they already have words in their mother tongue and the concepts to go with them. Many children go through a ‘silent phase’ but it is an active phase when they are sorting out in their minds important things like ‘when does one word end and another begin’. how long that lasts depends on the personlaity of the child.
      You know that children are well on their way with learning English when the parents complain that ‘she will only speak English with us at home’!
      Seriously though, the best way for children to have the exposure to English they need is through sharing books (fiction and non-fiction), everyday talk as part of routines, and through singing. I have touched on this in a previous post.
      All of these things you do fabulously well in your setting!
      Here is a link to an excellent website, and I will be writing another blog post looking at children learning a second language, rather than two at the same time.
      It’s great to hear from you again!
      Best wishes

  5. Fantastic blog, once again, Michael. I agree with the comments above regarding staff ratios. Communication and interaction with adults will certainly be reduced…and in a society where speech and language problems are already evident, it will only help to worsen the situation!
    In response to Mary’s question, I don’t have an exact answer as to how quickly an EAL child should begin to talk… However, they do have a need to communicate, to be understood.
    I believe Sign Language can bridge that gap very effectively, as is shown in studies in Luton . These studies have also shown that using signs helps improve the ‘dispositions and attitudes’ . It also help children to remember and recall the spoken word. Children went from ‘below age related expectation’ to ‘at’ or ‘above’ age related expectation in just 6-8 weeks!

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hi Katja
      As an EAL learner yourself, would you agree that it is easier for children to learn a second language, as they already have the concepts and ideas about language from their mother tongue? Also being older (than the babies i was referring to) they can really pick up from other children that they are playiing with.
      Here is a link to a very good site that answers some questions about children learning two languages at the same time. It is from the Encyclopedia of Language and Literacy Development website, that I read a lot.

      Mary need not worry about children in her setting. I have been there, and she has a terrific nursery school with dedicated and experienced staff… and generous adult to child ratios!! the children come from all over the world, and learn english very quickly.

  6. Lorna Walter says:

    Brilliant I concur with both you and Betty! As a four year old I used to play a lot on the beach near my home and often heard choice language but the final straw for mother was when the family were sitting at tea one day and I dropped my fork on the floor – according to my mother I exclaimed “Oh! I’ve dropped my f*****g fork!” I am informed that I had a severe telling off and sent to my room! It was 1954! As a teacher and parent though I know how important it is to talk meaningfully with children. Thanks for the blog I will share with colleagues!

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hi Lorna
      That made me laugh so much! I’m afraid that probably every parent (and child) has had the same experience, but it does prove the point!
      On a positive note, it does show that children learn so much language from EACH OTHER, and this is so important for our young EAL learners.
      I’m still laughing at your reply!
      Best wishes

  7. Penny Webb says:

    Really interesting blog making very good points.

    As a childminder who has many years experience I can back up what Betty said and your point about a word having meaning and the link to emotions / memories.

    Last year the two year olds in my setting were using the word ‘arboretum’ in context and pronounced correctly. Most of the children who at that time were using 3,4 and 5 word sentences would say ‘Go arboretum have picnic’ but one little would say ‘No like it arboretum’ – actually he did not like the peacock that we saw on one occasion, but associated the peacock with the whole visit in both cases the visit and therefore use of the word arboretum was because it was a place we visited regularly and a word associated with emotions (both negative and positive).

    I think a lot can be learned from this both in terms of adult ratios – and the use of ‘carpet time’ as a means of speaking to large groups of children – and the use of flash cards, phonics schemes for very young children – that are not (in the children’s eyes) related to real life important things or have an emotional connection.

    It really is no surprise that a child’s first clearly spoken word after the da,da and mummum sounds is NO – heard often and associated with emotions.

    Finally can I also urge everyone to respond to the consultation as mentioned by Laura Henry – and if you agree that ratios in childcare setting should not change to sign the petition also mentioned by Laura

    • Michael Jones says:

      Thanks Penny. I didn’t know what an arboretum was until a few years ago! I agree with you entirely: talking, and word learning in particular, is all about sharing experiences that children already know, and sharing new experiences too. This is so important for very young children, who learn everything IN CONTEXT. That means doing things and going places together.
      I have a huge admiration for Childminders, who regularly take children on trips out.They always seem to have huge people carriers, vast buggies and an amazing determination that the children in their care are going to have a great time.This gives them loads to talk about: even if it is saying they don’t like a peacock!
      Best wishes

  8. Fantastic story! As well as concerns for the consequences for children’s development it also raises issues of practicality.

    I run Forest Schools for schools and child minders where maintaining ratios are cruical. Combined with the hands-on, ‘real-life’ learning, the adults role as facilitator is key to extending and enriching learning.

    It’s important to get as many people on board the consultation as I fear that there may be many consequences if ratios increase.

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hi Mindy
      I do agree with you about the ratios. As important a point is HOW children talk WITH children when they are with them. That is where the real skill lies. Some people are intuitively tuned into talking with children, while others can learn the skills.
      It’s great to see how in our increasingly technologically driven lives and sedentary lifestyles Forest Schools are becoming more and more popular.
      Keep up the great work!

  9. How interesting your blog is! Thank you for sharing and I know the importance of repetition, so long as the word is interesting enough – we have a song about “uggily buggily buggies” which the children love. I’m so interested in using music as a tool for language development – there’s a blog here where i talk about nursery rhymes –

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hi Karen! Thanks for your reply. Music making, singing and communication and language development go hand in hand.
      Thank you for the link to your blog. Keep up the great work!
      Best wishes from Michael

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