Can Children Understand Fast Speech?

Jane Madell
April 23, 2013

Sometimes children have problems understanding speech and, therefore, learning language. Why? It may be hearing loss, it may be a language learning disorder. But it might be because parents and teachers speak too quickly. Little brains move more slowly than grown up brains. They are still working on developing neural connections.


How fast is fast?

For children 3-5 years old – their central auditory system can process spoken speech at 120-124 words per minute. Why do kids really like Mr Rogers? Because he spoke at 124 words per minute. As kids get older their ability to process increases. Children 5-7 years  of age can decode information at 128-130 words per minute.  By the time they get to fifth or sixth grade, children can process speech at 135 words per minute, and by middle school they can process 135-140 words per minute.


How fast do adults speak?

Herein lies the problem. Most adults speak 160-180 words per minute and many (probably including me) can reach 190 words per minute. Some children’s TV programs have a format in which speech is presented at 124 words per minute, others, including some popular cartoons, have some of the speech at 180-190 words per minute.


What effect does this have on children?

First let’s have no illusions about plunking kids down in front of the TV. It is not for their benefit. It is for the benefit of parents who need a little time off to make dinner or whatever. But considering the speed of speech on most TV programs, it is important to recognize that children will not learn from them and so it is babysitting in the worst possible way. Children learn by interacting with their environment. When you talk to your child, if she does not understand you recognize that by the look on her face or by what she says to you. You then know that you need to modify your presentation. The TV does not do that. If your child does not get it, it just moves on.


And what about classrooms?

The acoustic environment in classrooms makes for significant additional problems. Classroom noise and reverberation significantly interfere with learning. We need to do what we can to use sound-absorbent materials that reduce reverberation. We need to be sure lighting is good and reduce glare so children can see. And school staff needs to speak at a reasonable rate.


And at home?

Parents need to reduce auditory distractions, turn off TV or radio when having a conversation, speak at a reasonable rate.


What about children with hearing loss?

Children with hearing loss need even more assistance to understand what is being said. We need to watch the speed of our talking to children with hearing loss so they can really get the message. Yes, they will need to learn to understand more quickly, but let’s give their brains a chance to develop and, in the meantime, let’s be sure we are providing every opportunity for them to learn language.

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