TEACHERS of primary school pupils are increasingly concerned about children's listening and social skills.
Figures from the then Department for Education and Skills in 2006 showed that more than a third of five-year-olds could not pronounce the short vowel sounds in words such as 'pen', 'hat' and 'dog'.
Nearly a third were unable to read 20 common words and 17% could not recognise all the letters of the alphabet.
In the same year, children's communication charity I Can found that 50% of children were unable to speak in sentences when they started school and, in a previous study, that 89% of nursery workers were worried that the occurrence of speech, language and communication difficulties among pre-school children was growing.
It is a depressing picture that former NHS worker Vicky Arthurs is hoping to change, at least in one part of the North East.
Vicky, 30, now mum to 20-month-old Izaac, was on maternity leave from her job as training manager with the NHS Prescription and Pricing Authority when she found out she, and many of her colleagues, was to be made redundant.
It was then that Vicky decided on a complete career change.
Looking for a parent and toddler class to take her own son to, Vicky happened upon an organisation called Talking Tots while surfing the internet.
It sounded perfect - classes developed by speech and language therapists which were not only fun but helped equip your child with the sort of communication and social skills which would give them a head start when starting school.
"But," says Vicky, "there weren't any Talking Tots classes here in the North East.
"So I travelled to Lytham to see one of the classes and knew straight away I wanted to bring it to the North East.
"Every child in the room was having the time of their life - and the best thing was they didn't even realise they were learning."
While every child learns to talk at a different time, Vicky, who lives in Brandon, County Durham, believes there is much parents can do to encourage them.
"Teachers are saying they are spending a lot of their time trying to give children concentration and listening skills before they can even start to teach them the national curriculum," she says. "Yet communication, language and literacy is the foundation of a child's social and educational achievement and has an impact on everything. It is fundamental for development and learning.
"Children with poor communication skills may find it difficult to make friends and may lack vital social skills.
"Communication is one of the most essential yet complicated skills we ever learn, but rarely do we support it or develop it in the same way we might support, for example, learning to take those first steps."
Vicky's classes combine games, rhymes and brightly-coloured props and pictures to develop young children's social confidence, listening, attention and sharing skills.
At the class I attend to meet Vicky, the children play ball games which encourage them to listen to who they need to pass to, dance, enjoy a puppet show, listen to a story and sing before finally taking it in turns to say goodbye to each other.
Vicky has found some parents with concerns are using the sessions as a way to try to help.
Helen Lannagan, 31, a solicitor from Chester-le-Street, is there with her two-year-old Ben. "He doesn't talk at the moment which is part of the reason I brought him along," she says. "And I've noticed an improvement. …