Tobias, The Wichita Eagle, August 22, 2008
Toddlers can be a tough audience lively, distracted, always on
the move - but Amy Hockenberry knows how to grab them.
"Let's get in a circle," she tells her class at Wichita State
University's Child Development Center. "We're going to sing some
Hockenberry speaks slowly and clearly. The children watch her
intently, then meld into a cluster for music time.
Wichita State audiology professor Ray Hull would say the
children heard something unusual and irresistible: an adult they
Because the trick to get children to listen to really hear and
comprehend, whether they're toddlers or high school students
isn't speaking up, Hull says.
It's slowing down.
According to Hull, the average adult speaks at a rate of almost
170 words per minute. But the average 5- to 7- year-old
processes speech at a rate of only 120 words per minute.
The gap between what a child hears and what he or she
understands can appear to parents and teachers as inattention,
confusion or outright defiance.
"My daughter says, `My teacher talks so fast, I can't hear
her,'" Hull said.
"If teachers would slow down, they would be less frustrated, the
children would be less frustrated, and children would learn with
Just in time for another school year, Hull is preaching the
gospel of slowing down. He was scheduled to appear on a segment
of NBC's "Today" show, and his research shows up regularly in
national publications, from scholarly journals to the New York
Times and Prevention magazine.
Hull said he believes there could be fewer cases of learning
disabilities, hearing problems and behavior problems if adults
who work with children would slow their speech.
How slow? Think Mr. Rogers.
"There's a reason children were so captivated and mesmerized by
Mr. Rogers," Hull said. "He may have been one of the only adults
many children were able to understand."
The late Fred Rogers, of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," kept
children's attention because he practiced speaking at a rate of
about 124 words a minute, Hull said.
The pace may sound awkward, even ridiculous, to adults. But to
children accustomed to hearing only bits of sentences or garbled
phrases, it is sheer relief.
"In young children, the central nervous system has to mature
just like the rest of them. And it does so slowly, over time,"
The average high-school student processes speech at a rate of
about 140 to 145 words per minute, still slower than most adults
"So when an algebra teacher is speaking at 160 or 180 words per
minute and is introducing a new math concept ... that is a
problem," Hull said.
"Some children's central nervous systems have matured, and they
can do it. They can cope. But many can't."
But you're busy, right? You've got a million things to do. You
can't slow down.
Consider this example:
A mother races home from work and starts preparing dinner. The
kids are home from school and recounting their day. The
television is on. The dog is barking.
The mom, amid clanging dishes, hurriedly asks her children to
put their backpacks away and set the table and - she slows down
for this part - DO IT NOW!
"The child is wondering, `What am I supposed to do right now?'"
Mom repeats the order twice, maybe three times. She finally
slows down and enunciates because she's frustrated with the
kids' vacant stares.
"Anybody who works with children will save a great deal of time
if they will simply speak at a rate that children can
comprehend," Hull said.
Hockenberry, the preschool teacher, says she has become so
accustomed to speaking to toddlers, she continues the slower
pace at home with her husband.
"I'll say, `It's time to go' or `Seat belts are safe choices.'
And he just gives me this look," she said, laughing.
But chances are, he hears her loud and clear.
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