Toddler vocabulary skills may play a crucial role in kindergarten success, according to a new study published in the journal Child Development. The researchers found that children with larger oral vocabularies by age two arrived at kindergarten better prepared academically and behaviorally than their peers. These findings can help target early intervention efforts.
The study was conducted by researchers at the Pennsylvania State University, the University of California, Irvine, and Columbia University, who analyzed nationally representative data for 8,650 children in the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Birth Cohort.
Two-year-olds’ vocabularies were measured via a parent survey, and their academic achievement in kindergarten was evaluated individually through reading and math tests. Kindergarten teachers independently rated the children’s behavioral self-regulation and frequency of acting out or anxious behavior.
Researchers factored in a wide range of background characteristics (such as sociodemographics) and experiences (such as parenting quality) to more fully isolate the role of vocabulary growth. They looked at whether two year-olds with larger oral vocabularies achieved more academically and functioned at more optimal levels behaviorally once they began kindergarten.
Strong differences in oral vocabulary were noted between specific groups of children as young as age two, with children from higher-income families, females, and those experiencing higher-quality parenting having larger oral vocabularies than their peers. Children born with very low birthweight or from households where the mother had health problems had smaller oral vocabularies.
“These oral vocabulary gaps emerge as early as two years. Early interventions that effectively increase the size of children’s oral vocabulary may help at-risk two year-olds subsequently enter kindergarten classrooms better prepared academically and behaviorally.
Interventions may need to be targeted to two year-olds being raised in disadvantaged home environments,” says co-author George Farkas, professor of education at the University of California, Irvine.
Researchers examined the children three years later and found that those with a larger oral vocabulary at age two were better prepared academically and behaviorally for kindergarten, with stronger skills in reading and math, better behavioral self-regulation, and fewer acting out or having anxiety-related problem behaviors.
This oral vocabulary advantage could not be explained by many other factors, including the children’s own general cognitive and behavioral functioning and the families’ socioeconomic resources.
“Our findings provide compelling evidence for oral vocabulary’s theorized importance as a multifaceted contributor to children’s early development,” says study leader Paul Morgan, associate professor of education at the Pennsylvania State University.
“Our findings are also consistent with prior work suggesting that parents who are stressed, overburdened, less engaged, and who experience less social support may talk, read, or otherwise interact with their children less frequently, resulting in their children acquiring smaller oral vocabularies.”
Potential early interventions include home visitation programs, through which nurses regularly visit disadvantaged first-time mothers during and after their pregnancies to help with parenting matters and link them with social services and other support systems. These may play an important role in the school readiness of disadvantaged children, the authors suggest.