Nav: Home

Want to help your child succeed in school? Add language to the math, reading mix

May 17, 2018

Research shows that the more skills children bring with them to kindergarten - in basic math, reading, even friendship and cooperation - the more likely they will succeed in those same areas in school. Hence, "kindergarten readiness" is the goal of many preschool programs, and a motivator for many parents.

Now it's time to add language to that mix of skills, says a new University of Washington-led study. 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 UW Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences.

"A lot of other research focuses on math, science and literacy, and they don't even consider that language could be playing a role," she said. "But really, it emerges as a strong predictor across subject areas. Why do kids succeed in math, for example? Part of it could be having a strong math vocabulary."

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, published online April 30 in Early Childhood Research Quarterly, Pace and her colleagues from Temple University, the University of Delaware and the University of North Carolina examined longitudinal data from more than 1,200 children in the National Institute of Child Health & 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 1, 3 and 5.

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 they first enter a kindergarten classroom. The team analyzed academic and behavioral assessments, assigned standardized scores and looked at how scores correlated in grades 1, 3, and 5. Growth curve modeling allowed the team to look at children's levels of performance across time and investigate rates of change at specific times in elementary school.

Researchers found that of the skills and milestones evaluated - social/emotional, attention, health, reading, math and language - only language skills, when a child entered school, predicted his or her performance both within that subject area and 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 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's 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, it is language that deserves attention, too.

"It provides a foundation for social interaction. If you're stronger in language, you will be able to communicate with peers and teachers," she said. "Language also relates to executive functioning, the ability to understand and follow through on the four-step directions from the teacher. And it helps solve problems in math and science, because understanding terminology and abstract concepts relies on a knowledge of language."

For example, language ability at school entry not only predicted language proficiency through fifth grade as expected, but it also predicted growth in literacy between grades 1 and 3, and a similar amount of growth between grades 3 and 5. In effect, language gave children a boost to help them learn more than researchers might have predicted based on the children's performance at school entry.

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. For example, children who entered kindergarten with higher levels of skills appeared to make fewer developmental and academic gains than those children who started at lower levels. That is consistent with other research, but, Pace said, it's worth examining how to better serve high-performing students.

The study also represents an opportunity to rethink what skills are considered measures of kindergarten-readiness, she said.

"Language ability at school entry consistently emerges as an important predictor of student outcomes. This may be why the first three to five years are so critical for future academic and social development," Pace said. "It is the child's earliest, high-quality interactions with parents, teachers and caregivers that promote a strong communication foundation - and this foundation goes on to serve as the bedrock for future language and learning."
-end-
The original Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development was funded by the National Institutes of Child Health and 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.

For more information, contact Pace at amypace@uw.edu or 206-685-2997.

University of Washington

Related Language Articles:

The world's most spoken language is...'Terpene'
If you're small, smells are a good way to stand out.
Study analyzes what 'a' and 'the' tell us about language acquisition
A study co-authored by an MIT professor suggests that experience is an important component of early-childhood language usage although it doesn't necessarily account for all of a child's language facility.
Why do people switch their language?
Due to increasing globalization, the linguistic landscape of our world is changing; many people give up use of one language in favor of another.
Discovering what shapes language diversity
A research team led by Colorado State University is the first to use a form of simulation modeling to study the processes that shape language diversity patterns.
'Speaking my language': Method helps prepare teachers of dual language learners
Researchers at Lehigh University, led by L. Brook Sawyer and Patricia H.
The brain watched during language learning
Researchers from Nijmegen, the Netherlands, have for the first time captured images of the brain during the initial hours and days of learning a new language.
'Now-or-never bottleneck' explains language acquisition
We are constantly bombarded with linguistic input, but our brains are unable to remember long strings of linguistic information.
The secret language of microbes
Social microbes often interact with each other preferentially, favoring those that share certain genes in common.
A programming language for living cells
New language lets MIT researchers design novel biological circuits.
Syntax is not unique to human language
Human communication is powered by rules for combining words to generate novel meanings.

Related Language Reading:

Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It
by Gabriel Wyner (Author)

The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language (P.S.)
by Steven Pinker (Author)

Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages
by Guy Deutscher (Author)

The Art of Language Invention: From Horse-Lords to Dark Elves, the Words Behind World-Building
by David J. Peterson (Author)

The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind's Greatest Invention
by Guy Deutscher (Author)

Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World
by Nicholas Ostler (Author)

Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software
by Charles Petzold (Author)

The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts
by Gary Chapman (Author)

How Language Began: The Story of Humanity's Greatest Invention
by Daniel L. Everett (Author)

The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief
by Francis S. Collins (Author)

Best Science Podcasts 2018

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2018. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

The Story Behind The Numbers
Is life today better than ever before? Does the data bear that out? This hour, TED speakers explore the stories we tell with numbers — and whether those stories portray the full picture. Guests include psychologist Steven Pinker, economists Tyler Cowen and Michael Green, journalist Hanna Rosin, and environmental activist Paul Gilding.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#487 Knitting in PEARL
This week we're discussing math and things made from yarn. We welcome mathematician Daina Taimina to the show to discuss her book "Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes: Tactile Mathematics, Art and Craft for all to Explore", and how making geometric models that people can play with helps teach math. And we speak with research scientist Janelle Shane about her hobby of training neural networks to do things like name colours, come up with Halloween costume ideas, and generate knitting patterns: often with hilarious results. Related links: Crocheting the Hyperbolic Plane by Daina Taimina and David Henderson Daina's Hyperbolic Crochet blog...