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Good communication in early years key to success at school
01 July 2011
Newcastle University's Professor James Law was part of a team of researchers which proved that although social background has a noticeable effect on a child’s readiness for school, what parents do with their children, even before they begin to talk, is actually much more important.
The results showed that children who were taken to the library more often and owned more books at two-years-old achieved higher scores on the school assessment tests when they began primary school.
Parents who foster a love of reading in a child’s early years are ensuring they get off to a flying start at school, according to new research.
Researchers discovered that although social background has a noticeable effect on a child’s readiness for school, what parents do with their children, even before they begin to talk, is actually much more important.
Children who were taken to the library more often and owned more books at two-years-old achieved higher scores on the school assessment tests when they began primary school.
The research also showed that attending pre-school and having parents who taught them a wide range of activities had a positive effect – whereas extended exposure to television lowered their scores.
The Role of Language in Children’s Early Educational Outcomes report (published 30 June 2011) looks at how a child’s very early environment – before their second birthday – influences their language and school performance.
“One message coming through loud and clear is that how a child learns in their very early years is critical for smooth transition into the educational system,” said Professor James Law, Newcastle University, who was one of the researchers in the University of the West of England-led study.
“Although we recognise that traditional indicators of social risk such as material wealth remain influential later on, what you do with your child and how you communicate with them when they’re under two is far more important than having a flash car or a detached house in the country.
“This is a very positive message as it gets us away from the belief that a child’s educational future is pre-determined by standard measures of socio-economic disadvantage such as income, housing or the mother’s education.”
The review, which was funded by the Department for Education, is based on data from the University of Bristol-led Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children – a long-term population study of children born between April 1991 and December 1992 to mothers living in and around the city.
The research focused on the early questionnaires completed by mothers during the child’s pre-school years, and data collected from the schools on entry.
It soon became evident that what the mother did with her child in terms of activities and interaction, the resources available to her, and how supported she felt in the first two years had an important effect on her child’s performance at five-years-old.
Data from the study shows that children with a positive communication environment had a better expressive vocabulary by their second birthday. These children went on to achieve higher scores in language, reading and maths tests when they entered school. In the early years, the communication environment was a better predictor of children’s success with language than their general social background.
In this study, the child’s communication environment is defined by the number of books available to the child; the frequency of trips to the library; the mother teaching a range of activities to the child; the number of toys available; and attendance at preschool.
“Social disadvantage is often measured by parental income or education but this doesn’t tell us how parents choose to spend their time or money,” said Professor Law. “Simple activities such as visiting a library more often, playing games together or joining a Surestart group can help improve a child’s communication skills immensely.”
Most children develop speech and language effortlessly, but some are slow to acquire these skills and go on to struggle with literacy and academic skills throughout their schooling and this project set out to uncover what factors contributed to these problems.
Professor Sue Roulstone, Underwood Trust Professor of Language and Communication Impairment at the University of the West of England, who led the project, said, “These findings are an encouragement to all parents to provide a positive communication environment for their child from the very start of their lives.
“The project did identify particular aspects of the communication environment, like having children’s books around and not having the television on too much. But the main message is that, as parents, we can have an impact on how our children learn to talk by providing a range of communication experiences. And the better our children at talking by the age of two years, the better they will do when they start school.”
Four measures were used in the study, taken from suitable variables in the Avon Study dataset: socio-economic risk; the child’s early communicative environment; the child’s early language development; and the child’s school readiness at four to five years-old.
Full report available online at: http://www.education.gov.uk/publications/eOrderingDownload/DFE-RR134.pdf
(portrait) Professor James Law, Newcastle University, at Seven Stories, the national centre for children's books. Credit: Newcastle University
(landscape) Professor James Law, Newcastle University, at Seven Stories, the national centre for children's books. Credit: Newcastle University