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Children who miss out on baby talk not necessarily disadvantaged by age 11, research suggests

Posted on 12 November 2020

Babies and toddlers who miss out on high quality early talk and communication at home are not necessarily left at a permanent disadvantage, a new study suggests.

The research, led by the Universities of York and Cambridge, found that while the development of very young children’s verbal skills is essential in preparing them for school, it does not automatically impact on their reading and writing by age 11.

Helping primary school teachers to devise effective, personalised strategies to support these children would allow them to catch up with their more loquacious peers, the authors of the study say.

Quality engagement

The importance of children’s ‘Early Language and Communication Environment’ (ELCE) is widely acknowledged in research and policy. It refers to how much parents and caregivers talk, read, sing and play with very young children, to the quality of that engagement, and to children’s access to resources like books and toys.

While a richer ELCE is associated with both better school readiness and later educational outcomes, less is known about how it shapes children’s development of other linguistic and social skills that support academic achievement.

The new research used data from more than 7,000 children from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children to explore the links between the ELCE and a network of skills and competencies that children acquire during primary school, which in turn influence their reading and writing by age 11.

This covered the children’s ELCE up to age 2, literacy and social skills at the start of school (age five), language and social development in middle-primary school (ages seven to nine) and literacy skills at the end of Key Stage 2 (age 11). Importantly, it also included measures of the children’s socioeconomic status at the time of their birth (SES), which significantly influences children’s academic progress as well.

Multiple opportunities

Senior author of the study, Dr Umar Toseeb, from the Department of Education at the University of York, said: “Children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds tend to have poorer school readiness, poorer oral language and social development and poorer literacy at age 11. The early language and communication environment doesn’t work like that. It has a direct influence on school readiness at age five, but by age 11 its influence is mediated by interim developments.”

Lead author of the study, Dr Jenny Gibson, from the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge, added: “Fundamentally, we want to understand more about why children’s literacy skills vary by the time they leave primary school. Surprisingly, we found that there is no direct relationship between the communication environment at age two, and literacy at age 11. Instead, it helps children to build other skills which in turn affect literacy outcomes.”

“There is sometimes a sense that if children miss out on a high-quality communication environment when very young, they are at a long-term disadvantage. This research shows that there are multiple opportunities to guide them back towards successful literacy outcomes as they progress through primary school.”


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About this research

The study is published in the Oxford Review of Education.

Explore more of our research.