Decades worth of research has shown that children from low-income families are at a higher risk of entering school with poor language skills compared to more privileged students. On average, they score two years behind on standardized language development tests.
New research has shown that this achievement gap could begin at as early as 18 months, and by the age of two, children from low-income families show a six-month gap in language proficiency. By the age of three, the difference in vocabulary can be so large that children would have to attend additional schooling to catch up. Furthermore, poor children have more difficulty understanding abstract language and possess lower reading and writing skills, which increases the odds that the child will drop out of school in the future. They often struggle with phonological awareness skills: the ability to consciously manipulate a language’s sound system.
There are many factors that contribute to this trend. Birth to the age of three is a critical period for language development, as the brain is rapidly growing and developing. Parents who are less educated may not know the importance of consistently using language with their baby, which can cause a delay in early language skills. Parental engagement from birth can help bridge this gap, regardless of income level.
Parents who are struggling financially may not have the time or resources to devote to reading to their children. This affects a child’s emerging literacy skills. Building a foundation for strong literacy skills must begin early, and the process of acquiring these skills begins at birth, so it is imperative that parents make an active effort to read to their children.
The vast difference in vocabulary between children of different income levels relates to their exposure to varied vocabulary at home. In the span of one year, children from poor families are exposed to 250,000 utterances at home, while children from wealthy families hear four million. Discussion in low-income households is often focused on daily living concerns, such as what to eat, what to do and other practical topics. Therefore, children may be unprepared for a different type of discussion in a school setting.
There are various strategies that educators and parents can use to close the achievement gap. Early education and intervention are extremely important. High-quality preschool programs produce the best results, particularly when children begin such programs during infancy. Equally important is educating and empowering families. Teaching parents the importance of reading to children, talking with their children as much as possible and building vocabulary by giving words meaningful context can lead to positive outcomes. Working with multiple generations of the family is the best way to promote literacy and language skills at home.
Language connects us all; therefore, it is necessary to foster children’s communications skills from a very young age. With the appropriate combination of early intervention and parental engagement, it is entirely possible for children from low-income families to overcome the language achievement gap.
– Jane Harkness