Listening, not testing, will improve children’s vocabulary

Forget the daily grunt… can we learn more vocab today? kaarsten child image via Shutterstock

Every few months a story appears about the declining speech and language skills of children arriving in primary school. The epithet “the daily grunt” was invented by one newspaper to capture the lack of communication between parent and child, implying it caused poor communication skills and a lack of “school readiness”.

Now a new report by the UK school regulator Ofsted – its first on the early years – has called for children to start school at two years old, in part to help those from lower-income backgrounds who arrive at primary school with poor reading and speech.

While we may actively teach our children to read, oral language skills (the ability to learn words, form sentences and to communicate abstract ideas) is a defining human characteristic and, of these, it is vocabulary which is the pivotal skill. Children grow up acquiring these skills driven by, in Canadian telly-don Stephen Pinker’s words an “instinct” for language.

Recent evidence from twin studies suggests that language skills become increasingly heritable as the child moves through middle school, stressing the import role that the environment plays in the early years.

Yet there has been an abiding concern that some children are simply not speaking enough to access the national curriculum, the inference being that they are not being talked to enough. But how would we really know there was a problem?

When vocabulary develops

To start addressing this question we have to look at the whole population rather than focusing on the most extreme cases. Fortunately the UK’s Millennium Cohort Study allows us to do just this. The graph below compares the vocabulary skills of thousands of five year olds, across five different social groups, measured by what is known as the index of multiple deprivation.

The vocabulary of five-year-old children in England. Save the Children

The graph tells us two things. First, vocabulary skills do differ markedly from one social group to another. Children from more disadvantaged groups recognise and name fewer pictures than those from higher groups. Second, and perhaps more importantly, there are lots of children in each group who have difficulties learning vocabulary. Unfortunately, we can’t say whether this pattern has changed over the decades without repeating the same assessment on different cohorts of children across time.

But how important is vocabulary at school entry? Parents often say that if they ask their GP whether they should be worried about how much their child is talking they are told that he or she will “grow out of it”.

In another study we followed 18,000 children born in 1970 until they were in their early thirties. Rather to our surprise we found that children with restricted vocabulary at five years old were more likely to be poor readers as adults, have more mental health problems and have lower employment rates.

This does not mean that everyone who had poor vocabulary aged five had difficulties later on, just that their risk was higher. There were all sorts of variables that contributed to this prediction but social factors were always in the mix. What is more, there is plenty of data to suggest that the difference between children from higher and lower social groups widens over time.

Creating the right environment

It is tempting to jump to conclusions and say poor speech in young children is simply a matter of parents not talking to their children in a way that encourages language. This is the position taken in the often-quoted 1995 book by Hart and Risley in which they studied 42 children. Their solution is essentially paternalistic – intensive daycare from very early on for the most disadvantaged groups.

A more positive approach is to support both children and parents through awareness, careful observation and the fostering of these early language skills – both in terms of expression and comprehension – from birth. This creates the right environment for language learning rather than simply providing instruction.

Sure Start and Children’s Centres in the UK have played a critical role in doing this. And there will be more opportunities for schools as the pupil premium in the UK – extra money schools get for disadvantaged children – starts to be paid in early years settings. It is important that this type of work should begin long before children reach compulsory schooling.

Clearly children who do not communicate well are vulnerable for all sorts of reasons. There are risks associated with relatively weak early oral language skills but children are immensely resilient and there are many things that can be done to promote these early skills.

But we need to be careful that our expectations are not driven by the pressure to formalise the child’s educational experience. We know that early years settings and primary schools are immensely variable as to how well they support communication. The solution is less about structure than following relatively simple guidance and improving the interaction in class.

It is certainly not about doing more testing – something the government is determined to introduce for younger children. If we demand conformity from young children, immaturities can be seen as “problems” – as with behaviour so as with oral language.

Oral language skills are important in their own right but also because they are critical precursors to inclusion in school and elsewhere. We know that children are active learners. This is not just about the instruction they receive but the environment they are in at home and in school. This means encouraging oral language skills in young children is everyone’s job.

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