Washington: Now it's time to add language to that mix of skills, says a new University of Washington (UW)-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.
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.
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.
"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."
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."
(Source: Materials provided by the University of Washington)