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Why I changed focus from adult education to toddlers’ talk

Alison Sutton is the Director of Talking Matters. Alison describes the journey that led her to start a campaign aimed at encouraging talking more and talking different with small children.


For 30 years I have been working in adult literacy, seeing a pipeline of people with low skills and low confidence in themselves as learners, a pipeline that never reduces.

I have been COMET Auckland's manager for literacy and family learning for a number of years. A highlight has been my involvement in the Whānau Ara Mua family learning and literacy programme. Whānau Ara Mua empowers parents to have the confidence to help their children learn, which in turn, enhances their own employability skills and promotes family wellbeing. The learners are typically parents on benefits with children aged about 4 years, who are starting to think about meeting their work obligations. The new skills they gain make a huge difference to their family lives and the achievement of their children.

We knew COMET Auckland's direct ownership of Whānau Ara Mua would be ending at the end of 2016, so we began to think about how else to support intergenerational learning at greater scale. We need more than one family learning programme if we are to make a dent in the 400,000 or so adults in Auckland with low literacy.

At the same time, members of the Learning Auckland Leadership Table, a cross-sector group of educators and business leaders, were holding '100 conversations in 100 days' to gauge what Aucklanders were seeing as big education issues of the day. A system where young children were thriving early and a system that recognised and built on our growing cultural diversity were two of the major themes across those conversations.

Then came a lightbulb moment in 2014 when I heard Dr Russell Wills, the then Children's Commissioner, speak about his concern about the pre-schoolers he saw as a paediatrician, who were struggling with language and might not reach their potential at school. I had never realised the importance of talk so early on in life.

Next – some overseas insights. Early in 2015 I went to England and the USA for five weeks on a Winston Churchill Fellowship, looking at 9 initiatives where multiple organisations across cities are collaborating to raise literacy levels for both children and adults. Everywhere I went, people were talking about the huge loss of potential experienced by children who hadn't learnt to read by the age of 8.

All of these experiences pointed to the impact of speaking and listening in setting the platform for children's learning and literacy success. Enhancing early language could mean more adults with the skills they need as citizens and employees. Yet I didn't see a particular focus on talk out there in the community.

From this came the shaping of Talking Matters, a community campaign to focus the efforts of a wide range of community and education organisations onto the power of talk, to make sure young children reach their potential.

Here we are now, in early 2017, with Talking Matters up and running. We have support from the NEXT Foundation for 18 months – a proof of concept phase. We are exploring what it takes to create community motivation and action to talk more and talk differently to infants and toddlers. Talking is vital early on in life, when babies' brains are developing most rapidly. Quality interaction and talk literally shape babies' brains.

This is an extraordinary opportunity and one that fills me with hope and excitement. There is so much family and community potential to draw on. Click here to see a short video on the Talking Matters campaign.

If you are interested to take part in the Talking Matters campaign, join up to the Talking Matters network and follow us on Facebook