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Support for language development in early childhood needs to start right at the beginning and in the home.
A new study finds that a home environment that supports language development in early childhood—across the first four years of life—predicts children’s readiness to learn in pre-school, which in turn predicts the children’s academic skills in fifth grade (age 10-11). The study focused on low-income families.
The findings challenge the idea that pre-school alone can help children “catch-up” after a poor start at home. Rather, support for language development and learning begins in infancy right at home. Other research finds that early support can mitigate the poorer outcomes commonly associated with lower socio-economic status.
The researchers also found that, to a lesser extent, the home learning environment from infancy through pre-school predicts the home learning environment at 10-11, which then supports children’s academic success at 5th grade.
So, home environment support for language development early on paves the way to academic achievement in later years through two key pathways: by supporting school readiness in preschool, and, to a lesser extent, through the home learning environment when children are 10-11 years of age.
The study, part of a wider evaluation of the early years Head Start program in USA, involved 2,024 low-income and ethnically diverse families – White, Black, Hispanic English speaking and Hispanic Spanish speaking. The results were true for children from all ethnic groups.
Researchers assessed the early language development by measuring factors known from earlier research to influence a child’s cognitive development:
- Literacy activities in the home. Mothers were asked about book-reading, storytelling and teaching of letters, words and numbers. Children’s engagement in shared book-reading and access to print materials are associated with higher language development in early childhood: skills in vocabulary, narrative construction, phonemic awareness, print concept knowledge, and positive attitudes towards literacy.
- Quality of mother-child interaction. This was observed during a home visit and then from a video-recorded mother-child play session. Exposure to rich, varied and complex language in the early years improves language development, as does parental responsiveness and sensitivity.
- Learning materials present in the home. Researchers observed the homes they visited. They assessed the presence of books, toys, games for free expression (such as crayons and puppets), toys that facilitate motor skills (such as blocks) and number/counting games. The presence of books in a household has been linked to a child’s expanded vocabulary. Toys that elicit symbolic play, such as telephones and tea sets, assist language development in early childhood.
The learning environment when the child was 10-11 was similarly measured.
The researchers discuss several factors that might account for long-term associations from language development in early childhood to academic performance years later. The theory of “developmental cascades” proposes that early language skills lay a foundation for quicker learning at the next stage of development, and this pattern repeats itself over time. Then there is the possibility – as confirmed in this research – that home learning environments are relatively stable, so a child with a positive home learning environment is likely to be advantaged in later years, with positive habits solidifying. Thirdly, there may be positive feedback loops from children to parenting: a child with stronger language skills powerfully shapes the response of caregivers. Adults communicate more with children who communicate well, which further bolsters children’s skills.
All this evidence points to the need to start support for language development in infancy and in the home to arm children with the abilities they need to do well in school.
Tamis-LeMonda CT, Luo R, McFadden KE, Bandel ET & Vallotton C (2019), The early home learning environment predicts children’s 5th grade academic skills, Applied Developmental Science, 23