Early Language Key to School Success

Kim Echart of the University of Washington News reports on a new study which shows that early use of words and grammar determines overall student success

A new study indicates that children’s language skills in kindergarten predict their performance in other areas, including math and reading, throughout school. Not only does a child’s use of vocabulary and grammar predict future proficiency with the spoken and written word, but it also affects performance in other subject areas.

Language, in other words, supports academic and social success, says Amy Pace, an assistant professor in the University of Washington Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences, which led the study, published in Early Childhood Research Quarterly. The study was the first to look at a comprehensive set of school readiness skills and to try to determine which, of all of them, is the most solid predictor of a child’s later success. Language—the ability to fluidly learn words and to string them together into sentences—was the hands-down winner, said co-author Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, director of the Infant Language Laboratory at Temple University.

For this study, Pace and her colleagues examined longitudinal data from more than 1,200 children in the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development. That study used several measures of academic and social skills at specific ages and grade levels, including evaluations upon entry to kindergarten and in grades one, three, and five. While there is considerable research on how children develop specific skills over time, much of that research is focused on patterns of learning within a single subject area, like math or reading. Researchers in the UW study wanted to determine whether there are relationships between skills when considered in combination and to think about how these combined abilities might predict gains, or growth, above what might be expected based on the skills the child demonstrates when he or she first enters a kindergarten classroom. The team analyzed academic and behavioral assessments. 

Researchers found that of the skills and milestones evaluated, only language skills predicted students’ performance both within that subject area and in most others (math, reading, and social skills) from first through fifth grade. Reading ability in kindergarten predicted reading, math, and language skills later on, and math proficiency correlated with math and reading performance over time. People often confuse language with literacy, Pace said. Reading skills include the ability to decode letter and sound combinations to pronounce words and the ability to comprehend word meanings and contexts. Language is the ability to deploy those words and use complex syntax and grammar to communicate in speech and writing. And that is why it has such potential to affect other areas of development, Pace said. At a time when so much focus is on math and science education, language deserves attention, too.

Measuring the impact of one skill on another, in addition to measuring growth in the same skill, provides more of a “whole child” perspective, Pace said. A child who enters school with little exposure to number sense or spatial concepts but with strong social skills may benefit from that emotional buffer. “If we look at just a very narrow slice of a child’s ability, it may be predictive of ability in that area, but it’s not necessarily a good prognosticator of what’s to come overall for that child,” she said.

Researchers expected to find that the effects of kindergarten readiness would wear off by third grade, the time when elementary school curriculum transitions from introducing foundational skills to helping students apply those skills as they delve deeper into content areas. But according to the study, children’s performance in kindergarten continues to predict their performance in grades three through five. This was consistent for multiple skill areas, including language, math, and reading, and suggests that bolstering children’s development in those first five years is essential for long-term academic success.

A few findings merit further study, Pace added, especially as they relate to educational policy. The study also represents an opportunity to rethink what skills are considered measures of kindergarten readiness, she said. The original Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development was funded by the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development. Additional co-authors were Rebecca Alper of Temple University, Margaret Burchinal of the University of North Carolina, and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff of the University of Delaware.

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