Children from poorer backgrounds over a year behind in language skills, study finds


CHILDREN FROM low-income families are 1½ years behind their middle-class peers in language ability when they start school, according to a US literacy expert.

Dr Timothy Shanahan, who was appointed by former US president George Bush to advise on literacy, said these research findings from the University of Chicago were shocking.

“That’s a big difference when you think of a five- or six-year-old child who’s already a year and a half behind his peers,” he said.

“One of the things they found was that the average middle-class first grader [aged five or six] had been read to for more than 1,200 hours.

“There were children in a lot of low-income families who would have been only read to 25 hours in their entire life. Think about that difference in terms of the amount of language experience.”

Dr Shanahan is professor of urban education at University of Illinois, Chicago, where he is director of the literacy centre. He was speaking at an event yesterday to mark Young Ballymun’s first Language, Literacy and Learning Week.

He met parents yesterday and will address teachers and pupils today before giving the keynote address at the Reading Association of Ireland’s conference tomorrow.

Dr Shanahan said some studies suggested that the difference in the amount of language that children experienced in some neighbourhoods – by being spoken to by their parents and others – was as much as 30 million words by the time they entered school.

“Schools trying to make up 30 million words is not an easy thing. Essentially, years are being lost.”

Children learned language by being talked to, but parents who were under economic stress tended to talk to their children less. Children also learned by imitating their parents and by having access to books, magazines, newspapers and writing materials. He said one study showed that reading to nine-month old babies facilitated their later language development. “Your children can’t be too young for what I’m talking about and they can’t really be too old either.”

Dr Shanahan said it might be controversial to say so, but parents could and should try to teach their children before they start school.

One study showed that middle-class households were more likely to work with their children on writing and reading before they started school, while working-class parents were afraid to start this work.

“The middle-class mothers were getting ahead of the curve . . . and the working-class parents are saying, ‘I don’t want to mess this up, I don’t want to hurt the children’ . . . there’s nothing to be afraid of [in] teaching your children ABCs or letter sounds, you won’t hurt them,” he said

Dr Shanahan is a mentor to Young Ballymun which works to improve the health, education and wellbeing of children and young people.

Its chief executive Eleanor McClorey said Ireland’s literacy problem could only be addressed if the whole community worked together. She pointed to one study which estimated that 30 per cent of children in disadvantaged primary schools suffered from severe literacy problems, while an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development survey found that one quarter of Irish adults had a very low level of literacy.

According to Dr Shanahan, class size has less to do with improving literacy than time spent on reading and writing in every subject at school.

“You have to make sure that the kids are getting a larger amount of instructional time than they get now because it’s the biggest factor.”


30m words

The difference in the number of words a middle-class pre-school child is exposed to – by being spoken to by their parents and others – compared with low income counterpart.

1,200 hours

The amount of time that the average middle-class child has been read aloud to before starting school.

25 hours

The amount of time that average children in low-income families have been read to.

18 months

The gap in language ability between children from low-income families and middle-class families when they start school.