Speech and Language and TV – What is the Evidence?

Jean Gross, Communication Champion, has announced information which seems to show that having the TV on for a significant proportion of the day is having an effect on the speech and language of our youngest children (up to 7 years of age).

This would seem to make sense. Distinguishing between two conversations can be difficult. As adults we know how hard it is to have a phone conversation and have someone else talking to us at the same time.

However, a closer reading of the research itself reveals a much less newsworthy story. The research was a simple online survey of families’ TV habits and the progress of children’s learning as reported by their parents. The survey itself makes no claims about the impact of TV watching – it simply shows basic facts (as reported by parents) about the amount of TV being watched, whether the children had TV in their rooms, when and how they read to their children, their children’s first words and observations about the children’s learning and development.

No attempt was made in the survey to correlate the different areas (and with a sample size of around 1,000 it would have been difficult to do so accurately anyway).

In her interviews with the press, Ms Gross has superimposed the findings of the survey (for example, on the amount of TV children watch) onto previous tentative research showing that excessive TV watching can cause learning problems.

This conclusion has been reported in the press articles as being factually “proven” by the research with lurid headlines such as the Daily Mail’s “The youngsters who struggle to speak because their parents let them watch too much TV”. This is a great shame, as it devalues both the original research and this survey.

The positive aspect of news reports like this is that it at least gets people thinking about the effects of the environment on children’s learning and development. And this should extend to our early years settings too. I often find in baby rooms that there is a CD of music on in the background, which is great – if the children are benefitting from it, rather than it just amusing the practitioners.

Children do need adults to interact with them, which the TV doesn’t do. But the interactions need to be good quality, with total involvement by the adult, as during sustained shared thinking, for example. In issue 7 of the iCan Talk series, it is the type of adult-talk which is shown to have a beneficial affect on the children’s interaction. This publication also highlights the important issue of practitioners having access to good quality training, to equip them to deal with speech and language problems.

Another environmental ‘noise’ is the practitioners talking to each other over the heads of the children. This has only fringe benefit for the children in the room. (Incidentally, it is amazing how quickly children pick up on the attitudes and language used between practitioners).

There is a myriad of research showing that background noise affects language recognition in adults as well as children:

In 2005, in a review of the current research in America, Anderson and Pempek found that background TV for young children was disruptive. They also concluded that considerably more research is needed on this subject.

Maxwell and Evans (2002) found that acoustically quieter classrooms for 4 and 5 year olds rated higher on language scales.

Van Engen and Bradlow (2007) found that background speech did interfer with a child’s sentence recognition.

Hygge et al (1992) found that both background noise and background speech affected normal hearing people.

The issue of background noise is a very important and long standing one which needs addressing. It is something which affects early years settings, schools and homes. It would benefit from an in depth, longitudinal study, across a multitude of environments, rather than a simple online survey.

That being said, I actually agree with the many of the conclusions and recommendations now being drawn from the survey. What I don’t agree with is that parents and practitioners should be presented with information which is misleading for the sake of a newsworthy headline.


Anderson, D and Pempek, T (2005) Television and Very Young Children American Behavioral Scientist

Hygge S,Rönnberg J, Larsby B, Arlinger S Normal-Hearing and Hearing- Impaired Subjects’ Ability to Just Follow Conversation in Competing Speech, Reversed Speech, and Noise Backgrounds Journal of Speech and Hearing Research Vol.35 208-215 February 1992.

Maxwell, L and Evans, G (2000) THE EFFECTS OF NOISE ON PRE-SCHOOL CHILDREN’S PRE-READING SKILLS Journal of Environmental Psychology, Volume 20, Issue 1, March 2000, Pages 91-97

Van Engen, K and Bradlow, A (January 2007) Sentence recognition in native- and foreign-language multi-talker background noise J. Acoust. Soc. Am. Volume 121, Issue 1, pp. 519-526

http://www.ican.org.uk/Resources accessed on 10 January 2010

Get FREE Access to Early Years TV

Sign up for Early Years TV Email Updates and we'll email you with details of each new episode, along with our regular email tips and strategies.

Early Years TV signup
You may also like
EYPS New Standards and Reviews
Resource Ideas to Support Children
  • Kim Feb 25,2015 at 8:47 am

    Great article. Recently heard Sue Palmer speak, author of “Toxic Childhood” who spoke about a screen using nation, and how it correlates with increased language delay according to research.

  • http://yahoo.com Feb 10,2013 at 4:39 pm

    I wanted to present this unique blog post,
    “Speech and Language and TV – what is the evidence?
    ” together with my pals on facebook. Isimply wished to spread your wonderful publishing!
    Thank you, Justin

  • Laura Henry Oct 24,2011 at 8:59 am

    Very well said! As a sector we need to look at the use of TV’s in daycare and the impact on children’s learning and development. With some children watching too much TV at home, should we ban TV in nurseries? I had the pleasure of listening to Professor Stuart Shanker a few years ago and he talked about the unnatural state that children are in when they are watching TV.

Leave Your Comment

Your Comment*

Your Name*
Your Webpage