An abundance of research shows the early language environment has long-term effects on later language skills. The earlier a child learns language skills, the better, is a consistent finding in language research. This has been found with syntax ability1, grammar2, speech production3, and sentence processing skills4 and also with learning non-native languages5, written language,6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and sign language11.
The long-term effects of early language learning have important ramifications for the individuals as well as the societies in which they live. To illustrate this point, I’ll quickly review some of the research on learning receptive language and early reading.
The Early Language Environment Effects Later Vocabulary and It Appears to Effect Your Baby’s Brain Processing Speed
The well-known study by Hart and Risley in 199512 found that the number of words spoken to a child by age 3 was a better predictor of a child’s vocabulary at age 11 than the parents’ IQs, parents’ socioeconomic status, or which school the child attended.
A new study on the topic found that word learning by 18 months of age is associated with later word learning. Babies who learned more words by 18 months of age also had greater vocabularies at age 3. This is known as a “language gap”, where babies with better receptive language abilities early in life also know more words at later ages. In addition, the researchers found that 18-month-old babies in higher socioeconomic status households not only knew more words than babies in lower socioeconomic status households, but they also had faster brain processing speeds. The researchers hypothesized that the differences in language environments in the first 18 months of life led to the differences in brain processing speeds by 18 months of age.13
It was also hypothesized that the “language gap” that exists by 18 months of age would be hard to overcome and that babies who had been taught fewer words in the first 18 months of life could have later delays in learning language skills (Fernald, Marchman, & Weisleder, 2012).
The Earlier a Child Learns to Read, the Better the Child Reads and the More the Child Enjoys Reading
In the 1960s, Dolores Durkin conducted multiple longitudinal studies over a six-year period. Children who were taught to read at ages 3 or 4 read better than children of the same IQ who were taught at ages 5 or 6. Those with the same IQs who were taught at ages 7 or 8 were even farther behind. Six years later, the children who were taught to read earlier were still ahead of the same-IQ children who were taught later. In addition, the earlier the child learned to read, the more likely the child enjoyed reading.
Parent Involvement in Teaching Reading and Early Word Reading Have Positive Effects
In a five-year longitudinal study, Sénéchal and LeFevre (2002) found: “Parent involvement in teaching children about reading and writing words was related to the development of early literacy skills. Early literacy skills directly predicted word reading at the end of grade 1 and indirectly predicted reading in grade 3. Word reading at the end of grade 1 predicted reading comprehension in grade 3.”
Reading Problems at the End of Grade 1 Are Very Difficult to Overcome
In addition to the negative consequences of delays with receptive language learning attributed to the environment, there are also long-term consequences of low reading scores that are extremely detrimental to individuals and societies.
Fewer than 1 out of 8 children who cannot read well at the end of first grade ever catch up to read at grade level. According to a 2016 report, 65% of 4th graders in the US are reading below grade level. In most countries with reported data, more than half of the students are reading below a proficient level. In India, the reading scores are even more bleak. India recently participated in the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). India was second-to-last in reading out of the 73 countries that participated where researchers collected data. Experts estimate that the average Indian eighth grader reads at the level of the average second grader from Shanghai.
Early Reading Ability Has Very Long-Term Effects on a Person’s Life
A study from the United Kingdom (Ritchie & Bates, 2013) shows that early math and reading abilities have very long-term benefits. Children who performed better on reading and math tests at age 7 were more likely to earn higher wages later in life according to researchers at the University of Edinburgh. The team analyzed data from the 1958 National Child Development Study in the UK. They found children with early reading and math skills at age seven had better jobs, better housing, and higher incomes at age 42. Children who advanced by just one grade level in reading by age seven earned an average of 5000 GBP (about 8000 USD) per year more at age 42 than their classmates. Children with more advanced reading skills at age seven typically earned even more while those behind at age seven were more likely to earn much less.
People often think there are many confounding variables and that something else might be the main factor associated with doing well 42 years later. However Ritchie and Bates (2013, p. 6) state that “mathematical and reading ability at age 7 are substantially and positively correlated with SES at age 42, independently of relevant confounding variables.” In other words, the children’s reading and math abilities at age 7 – not just the child’s socioeconomic status, the child’s IQ, or other factors – had lasting impacts on their lives.
Early Reading and Early Math Skills Impact Future Socioeconomic Status
Ritchie and Bates state, “Achievement in mathematics and reading was also significantly associated with intelligence scores, academic motivation, and duration of education. These findings suggest effects of improved early mathematics and reading on SES attainment across the life span.” They noted that early reading and math skills had a larger impact on future socioeconomic status than intelligence, education level, and social status in childhood. This study makes a very strong case for teaching early reading and math skills. They call it a route to social mobility because initial socioeconomic status was not as important as whether or not the child had early reading or math abilities at age 7.
The above information is intended to educate and motivate parents and childcare providers to help babies and toddlers learn. As people become more informed on this important topic, they may decide to focus more on helping infants and toddlers learn early language and math skills in the first two years of life. In the first two years, around 75% of the mass of the brain is forming. Please read my tips on how to teach infants and toddlers receptive language and written language skills on this website. In addition, please read tips on teaching young children math skills at YourBabyCanLearn.com.
- Coppieters, R. (1987). Competence Difference between Native and Near-Native Speakers. Language 63(3), 544-573.
- Johnson, J. S. & Newport, E. L., (1991). Critical period effects on universal properties of language: The status of subjacency in the acquisition of a second language. Cognition, 39(3), 215-258.
- Oyama, S. (1976). A sensitive period for the acquisition of a non-native phonological system. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 5, 261-285.
- Mayberry, R. I. (1993). First-Language Acquisition After Childhood Differs from Second-Language Acquisition: The Case of ASL. Journal of Speech and Hearing Research 36, 1258-1270.
- Stevens, G. (1999). Age at immigration and second language proficiency among foreign-born adults. Language in Society, Volume 28, 04, pp 555-578.
- Durkin, D. (1966). The Achievement of Pre-School Readers: Two Longitudinal Studies. Reading Research Quarterly, 1(4), 5-36.
- Ritchie, S. J. & Bates, T. C., (2013). Enduring Links From Childhood Mathematics and Reading Achievement to Adult Socioeconomic Status. Psychological Science.
- Duncan, G. J., Dowsett, C. J., Claessens, A., Magnuson, K., Huston, A. C., Klebanov, P., et al. (2007). School readiness and later achievement. Developmental Psychology, 43, 1428–1446.
- Hanson, R. A., and D. Farrell, 1995. The long-term effects on high school seniors of learning to read in kindergarten. Reading Research Quarterly 30(4), 908–933.
- Sénéchal, M., & LeFevre, J. A., (2003). Parental Involvement in the Development of Children’s Reading Skill: A Five-Year Longitudinal Study. Child Development, 73(2), 445–460.
- Emmorey, K., Bellugi, U., Friederici, A. & Horn P., (1995). Effects of age of acquisition on grammatical sensitivity: Evidence from on-line and off-line tasks. Applied Psycholinguistics 16 (01), 1-23.
- Hart, B. & Risley, T., (1995). Meaningful Differences in Everyday Parenting and Intellectual Development in Young American Children. Baltimore: Brookes.
- Fernald, A., Marchman, V. A. & Weisleder, A., (2012). SES differences in language processing skill and vocabulary are evident at 18 months. Developmental Science.