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Low-Income Kids Have Fewer Opportunities to Build Complex Language Skills

Low-Income Kids May Miss Out On Complex Language Skills

Children from lower socioeconomic communities have fewer opportunities to build complex language skills both at home and at school, putting them at a disadvantage in their kindergarten year, according to a new study led by New York University (NYU).

The findings add to the growing body of research showing that children’s academic achievement is predicted by the combined socioeconomic status of both the family and the school. These two factors together have an impact on children’s access to learning resources, including adults who create language-rich opportunities when they speak with children.

“We found that the quality of one’s educational opportunities is highly dependent on the streets where you live. Tragically, the children who need the greater opportunity to learn appear to be the least likely to get it,” said lead author Dr. Susan B. Neuman, professor of childhood and literacy education at NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

“Children may go from a home with limited physical and psychological resources for learning and language to a school with similar constraints, resulting in a double dose of disadvantage,” said Neuman. “Our study suggests that neighborhoods matter and can have a powerful influence on nurturing success or failure.”

For the study, the researchers looked at language-advancing resources in both the homes and schools of 70 children who recently made the transition from preschool to kindergarten. Half of the families lived in poor neighborhoods in Detroit, while the other half lived in more demographically diverse Michigan communities that were primarily working class.

The researchers followed the children through their kindergarten year, conducting four hour-long home visits in which they observed interactions between parents and children in order to understand the degree and quality of cognitive stimulation in the home.

The researchers also conducted four half-day observations in kindergarten classrooms during which the teachers’ lectures were recorded. The language spoken by parents and teachers was then analyzed for both quantity (number of words spoken) and quality (using varied vocabulary and complex sentences).

These observations were combined with assessments of the children’s school readiness skills, including vocabulary knowledge and letter and word identification.

The findings show that children in low-income neighborhoods had fewer supports for language and early literacy developments than did those in working-class communities. In both settings, there were significant differences in the quality of language directed at children, but there was no difference in the quantity of language overall.

At home, parents of lower socioeconomic status used shorter sentences, fewer different words, and had lower reading comprehension than did parents from working class neighborhoods.

In the classroom, low-income children attended kindergartens in which teachers used simpler sentences, less varied vocabulary, and fewer unique word types — potentially oversimplifying their language for students.

“Children’s early exposure to a rich set of language practices can set in motion the processes that they use for learning to read, including the vocabulary and background knowledge necessary for language and reading comprehension,” Neuman said.

“Consequently, children who have limited experience with these kinds of linguistic interactions may have fewer opportunities to engage in the higher-order exchanges valued in school.”

All the children in the study experienced learning across their kindergarten year, but those in the working class communities outpaced their low-income peers, particularly in expressive vocabulary.

The study further suggests that no matter the strength of the early boost children receive in preschool, differences in later environmental influences can either support or undermine this early advantage.

“Too often we have focused on what happens within early childhood programs instead of the environmental supports that surround them. We need to account for the multiple contexts of home and school in our understanding of children’s early development,” Neuman said.

The findings are published in the Journal of Educational Psychology.

Source: New York University

Low-Income Kids May Miss Out On Complex Language Skills

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2018). Low-Income Kids May Miss Out On Complex Language Skills. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 25, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 16 Apr 2017)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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