Wales’ poorest children already falling behind with language by the time they start school

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New researcDaydreamingh using longitudinal data finds Wales’s poorest children are starting primary school already struggling with language skills.

One in four children growing up in poverty in Wales leaves primary school unable to read well, and this reading ‘gap’ begins in the early years. The findings have been published in Ready to Read, a new report by the literacy campaign Read On. Get On.

Researchers from the Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research Data (WISERD), at Cardiff University, conducted an analysis of data from the Millennium Cohort Study, a longitudinal study following the lives of 19,000 children born in the UK in 2000-1.

The study found that children in Wales who live in persistent poverty are twice as likely to score below average in vocabulary scores at age 5 as their better off peers, and that these patterns persist as children grow up. Children living in poverty who had poor language skills at age 5 are much more likely to still be behind at age 11 than their better off peers.

Children who read well by 11 do better at school, get better exam results and do better in the workplace.

Poverty affects children’s learning in different ways. Struggling on a low income creates stress and anxiety which can make it harder for parents to engage with their children’s learning. A low income can limit the material resources available to support child’s early learning.

Each year, thousands of Wales’ poorest children are prevented from fulfilling their potential.

Professor Chris Taylor, study author and Co-Director of (WISERD), is an advisor to the Read On. Get On. campaign, a coalition of national literacy and communication organisations, charities, libraries, teaching unions and publishing agencies including Save the Children UK.

Professor Taylor said: “There is very clear evidence that poverty and deprivation continue to impact on children’s ability to read well. When parents are struggling to find work, or take on additional work just to pay their rent, the attention that children need in the first few years of their lives can often be overlooked.

“Trying to establish some kind of routine, such as family meal times or regular bedtimes, provides a great opportunity to develop a child’s language and literacy skills through conversations and sharing books. But we must also not forget that some parents lack the confidence to support their children in this. The Read On. Get On. campaign will help provide the most vulnerable families and their children with the support that they need.”

Read On Get On. is calling for the Welsh Government to increase investment in the early years workforce and support for parents in their child’s early years.

The Ready to Read report shows how good quality support for children and parents in the early years for example access to an early language expert can help improve language skills and ensure children start school ready and able to learn.

The report welcomes recent initiatives in Wales yet calls on the Welsh Government to strengthen the quality of the early education workforce by ensuring all staff and parents have access to an early language expert by 2020. Campaigners argue that the evidence shows that employing early years’ teachers with graduate level qualifications has a measurable impact on children’s language development.

Mary Powell-Chandler, Head of Save the Children-Wales, said: “If we are to build a strong, successful Wales then it is vital all children have the best possible start in life, regardless of their background. We know early language is a crucial stepping stone to literacy and that children with good language ability at age five are more likely to have both higher qualifications and to be in employment in adulthood compared to their peers.”

Anni Llŷn, Welsh Children’s Poet Laureate, said: “Reading is more than looking at a word and being able to say it or write it. Reading means to “understand” and ‘interpret’. If we do not encourage our children to strive to understand and interpret the world around them from a young age, then we are limiting their future.”

Further information

Read the Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research Data (WISERD) news story: Wales’ poorest children already falling with language by the time they start school, September 2015.

Read the news story National campaign highlights impact of poor childhood literacy, April 2015

The Read On. Get On. campaign is a coalition of national literacy and communication organisations, charities, libraries, teaching unions and publishing agencies including Save the Children. The coalition has set a goal to get every child reading well by age 11 in 2025. The coalition has also set an interim goal to ensure every child in Wales has good language skills by the time they start school by 2020. The report, Ready to Read is published in September 2015.

Professor Taylor previously conducted a Millennium Cohort Study analysis for WISERD with Professor Gareth Rees and Rhys Davies: Devolution and geographies of education: the use of the Millennium Cohort Study for ‘home international’ comparisons across the UK, Comparative Education (2013).

The Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) is a multi-disciplinary research project following the lives of around 19,000 children born in the UK in 2000-01.