Should the tots be tuning in?

Today's pre-school children lack the language skills of previous generations. Next week, some of the biggest names in British TV meet to consider if they are to blame
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How much TV should your toddler watch? Is it OK to park your two-year-old in front of the set for a few hours? Does it matter if they prefer Tinky Winky to Peter Rabbit? A recent raft of polls and surveys suggests that very young children may be being harmed by too much goggling at the box, especially if they are watching on their own.

How much TV should your toddler watch? Is it OK to park your two-year-old in front of the set for a few hours? Does it matter if they prefer Tinky Winky to Peter Rabbit? A recent raft of polls and surveys suggests that very young children may be being harmed by too much goggling at the box, especially if they are watching on their own.

Eighty-nine per cent of nursery staff, in a survey by the charity I CAN, which helps children with speech and language difficulties, were worried that those difficulties were on the increase among pre-school children. The survey covered only 120 workers, but was said by those in the profession to reflect a growing concern. Lack of time spent talking to children, the use of TV to pacify a child and the trend for parents to talk on behalf of their child instead of letting the child have a say were all blamed for the downward trend.

The education world was alerted to the problem when David Bell, the Chief Inspector of Schools, said that many children led "disrupted and dishevelled" early lives and were too often left in front of the television. Alan Wells, the director of the Basic Skills Agency, stoked the fire. Attacking a culture in which parents let children sit in front of the TV or computer for hours, rather than talk to them, he complained that children's conversational skills had declined to the level of a "daily grunt".

Now, a digest of all recent research, compiled by the National Literacy Trust, suggests that until we know more about how much television is enough - and the effects of background TV in particular - viewing should be kept to a minimum, especially among the under-twos. Heavy viewers are more likely to be linguistically under-developed, according to some of the evidence, although a direct causal link hasn't been established. "People have reported going into homes where the TV has been on loudly all day - and talking opportunities are being missed if that's the case," says the Trust's director, Neil McLelland. "We're not as good as we should be at giving parents simple, empowering skills. We should be getting across the pleasure of, say, watching with your child, as well as the benefits".

Television viewing for the very young is best done with mum - or dad - the digest suggests, but that isn't always happening. This means that little ones are almost certainly tuning in to bedroom scenes in 6pm soaps, or just watching pictures and words that are too fast-paced or plainly unsuitable for them. It isn't a good idea to have television sets in bedrooms, either, says the digest. Yet an NOP survey in 2003 found that one in three children under four has a TV in the bedroom. Who is responsible for this state of affairs? Making instant judgements about what or who is to blame is unhelpful, says James Law, a professor in the language and communication science at City University. "TV is not the villain of the piece," he says. "Very young children need social interaction, but later on they can watch TV and learn from it."

But if there are homes where there is severe or complete cultural impoverishment - not a book in sight - and outrageously low expectations, there are also homes with impossibly high ambitions for their offspring. Middle-class parents with very high expectations may, by working long hours, lose touch with the language development of their child. The ideal, says Professor Law, is to find out where your child is on the language stepladder and provide some "scaffolding" - giving them help to build on what they know. That can be difficult if you're always out and the nanny is Czech. As a result, a lot of worried parents are buying books on how to teach children to read.

The TV executives taking part in a big conference next week are used to the flak but are often bemused by it, arguing that they can't take the postition of a parent or carer themselves, whatever some people would like. "No programme-maker wants anyone to watch their shows 24 hours a day," says Clare Elstow, head of pre-school TV at CBBC. "People wouldn't leave toddlers alone with other toys - why is TV any different? The viewing experience is enhanced so much if it is accompanied." The BBC's children's digital channel repeats its programmes in four-hour blocks, so that parents can get out and about and still catch favourite shows.

At this public-service end of the TV spectrum the programme-makers take enormous trouble to ensure that their output does not offend and that they are doing what they can to aid children's development. Some are so committed that one wouldn't be surprised if they read the whole of the foundation years curriculum before breakfast. Anne Wood, co-creator of Teletubbies and the founder of Rag Doll Productions, has three employees devoted to visiting schools, working with parents, videoing children watching the programmes and keeping in touch with 25 families to monitor feedback.

Iain Lauchlan, the head of Tell Tale ( Tweenies and Boo), routinely consults a child education expert and a psychologist before he sending off a script. Every programme has a "reason for being", he says. Tweenies came about because he had noticed children aged three to five watching soaps that were not aimed at them. They wanted to have their own soaps. "Vicarious" television watching is condemned in the digest compiled by the National Literacy Trust. Now, says Lauchlan, this age group can be entertained by the Tweenies - their peers - and lock into the characters. "We can raise any issue - telling lies, keeping up socially, dying," he says. "But it's not overt."

When Wood created Teletubbies she wanted to tailor-make a programme for the very young. The storm over whether Teletubbies stunted children's educational development by having its characters talk in baby language was partly about the fact that it replaced another favourite - Playdays - and had the audacity to do away with an adult explaining what was going on. That naturally made it less appealing to some adults. Educationalists and psychologists condemned the monosyllabic utterances of Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa Laa and Po.

Wood has always defended the language in the programme. As well as the teletubby voices, it had a narrator, nursery rhymes and voice trumpets, with a variety of accents and languages.

In a re-run of these old battles, though, the Trust digest questions the extent to which the under-twos understand the content of Teletubbies, as opposed to being entertained by it. Other research on this age group says that it is difficult for toddlers to separate emotion (pleasure) from cognition (knowing) so the digest's conclusion might be over-harsh.

Teletubbies has won some academic support. Jackie Marsh of the University of Sheffield, who is speaking at next week's conference, says the programme dovetails well with children's need to build on what they already know. In other words, it makes good use of repetition. Marsh ran a study on children aged three and four in two inner-city nurseries in the north of England, which showed up differences between parents' and teachers' perceptions of the programme. The parents were positive and the teachers more negative. But the teachers' views changed when it was decided to organise Teletubbies activities in the classroom. The teachers found that children they had categorised as having problems with writing were enthusiastic when asked to write about Teletubbies. One of the boys couldn't wait to get to the writing table and once there wrote a number of recipes for Tubby toast, Tubby burgers and Tubby pizza. Almost every child talked about how the programme related to their home lives, which was their favourite character, and which videos they had.

This weaving of threads between children's home lives and school is one way in which TV can be used to develop language - and also literacy. For the National Literacy Trust, accentuating the positive will be important in the battle to tame the monster in the corner, because it wants parents to think about how they use TV rather than to feel beleaguered and defensive. All the same, it might be best not to buy that extra set for the bedroom.

The National Literacy Trust's conference, "TV is here to stay" is on 15 March at Kensington Town Hall, London W8 7NX, 10am to 4.15 pm. More information 020-7828 2435 or book online at