Poor parenting and too many hours in front of the TV are being blamed for a "disturbing" rise in the number of children lacking the basic skills they need when they start school.
One speech therapist had to teach a 5-year-old the word "banana", and one Wellington school is running a programme to teach new entrants basic motor skills that include how to hang up their school bags.
In Wairarapa, Masterton Primary School principal Sue Walters said: "We get a lot of kids who come to school who just can't form proper sentences.
"They have very limited vocabulary and some are operating at a 3-year-old's level. You can't teach kids to read and write if they can't speak."
The problem was not necessarily socio-economic, but one of parenting, Ms Walters said. With individual attention from an articulate adult every day, pupils quickly progressed.
Massey University senior lecturer in speech and language therapy Elizabeth Doell said that, though there were complex reasons why children had language difficulties, it was often because they didn't have literacy experiences such as book reading or conversations at home.
At the age of 5, a child should be able to construct a reasonably complex sentence, and have a certain level of vocabulary. But this was often not the case, and an urgent inquiry was needed to get to the bottom of the problem, she said.
"I don't think we truly know the extent of it."
Retired speech language therapist Margaret Hannon operates the non-profit Granny's Basket language development programme at low-decile Masterton schools.
It offers one-on-one language development for 5-and-6-year-olds who don't qualify for special education but who often speak at a 3-year-old's level.
Their parents barely talked to them at home, they had not had stories read to them, and often had not attended pre-school, she said. Some struggled to name colours or to correctly identity common foods, and made basic grammatical errors.
"They watch television so they might know what things are, but they don't know the names of them.
"Instead of saying, `He's going in his car,' they might say, `Him's going in her car'. Or instead of saying, `I'm going to the supermarket in the car,' they say `Go supermarket car'."
Last year about 25 children at decile-2 Lakeview School and Masterton Primary, decile 3, were given three half-hour sessions three times a week.
"What we're doing is not rocket science; it's often just what mothers and grans do every day that the kids are lacking," she said.
"The children really blossom once they have the skills – the teachers notice that all of a sudden the children are speaking in class and participating."
Wellington's Fernlea School principal Walter Gordon said the school had launched a Perceptual Motor Programme after so many children arrived at school ill-equipped. Some had to be taught basic hand-eye co-ordination, and how to turn left and right.
Sedentary home lives were often to blame, with time spent with television and video games instead of playing outside. "They are just missing out on some of that growing-up development. There are lots of children who have the good, well-rounded experiences that help them when they get to school, and that's the majority, but those that don't are a big concern."
New Zealand Principals' Federation president Paul Drummond said principals and teachers were reporting increasing numbers of children arriving at school lacking basic abilities.
"The disparity and the gaps around student readiness for school is disturbing. There are developmental differ-ences anyway, but you would hope that 5-year-olds would arrive at school with the skills to talk and have vocab that reading and writing can be built from."
It showed how ridiculous it was to expect every child to reach a national standard, when some started from such low levels, he said.
- © Fairfax NZ News