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31-10-2011 | Article

Degree of child language development depends on skill of classmates

Abstract

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MedWire News: Preschool children with poor language skills improve faster when surrounded by peers of higher ability than in the presence of similarly low-skilled children, suggest study results.

Children with a low level of language skill who were placed in nursery or preschool classes with children of a similar or lower ability either had no improvement or experienced further delay in language development over a period of 1 academic year.

"The way preschool works in the United States, we tend to cluster kids who have relatively low language skills in the same classrooms, and that is not good for their language development," commented lead author Laura Justice (The Ohio State University, Columbus, USA) in a press statement.

"We need to pay more attention to the composition of preschool classrooms," she said.

Justice and colleagues assessed the language skills of 338 preschool children in 49 classrooms, with an average of seven students per class, at the beginning and end of 1 academic year. The team evaluated the effects of peer ability on skill development over the course of the year.

The researchers used five tests of language ability. These included three subtests of the Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals Preschool, Second Edition, namely, Sentence Structure, Word Structure, and Expressive Vocabulary. Two further tests included the third edition of the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test, Form A to assess children's single-word receptive vocabulary, and the Narrative Assessment Protocol to test children's narrative discourse ability.

A significant interaction between the language skill level of a child's peers and their own language ability at the end of the academic year was observed by the authors.

Justice et al found that the peer effect was greatest in children with low language skills (1 standard deviation [SD] or more below the mean for all the children) who were taught with other children who also had low language skills.

Children in classes with the lowest ability (25th percentile for language ability out of all the classes) had a delay in language development over the year compared with their peers in average ability classes (equivalent to a 1.5 SD reduction in mean language score).

Of note, student standing in the class compared with the other students also influenced language skills. For example, the lowest ability students still improved even in low standard classes, presumably because they were among higher ability students even if the overall skill level of the class was low.

In contrast, the language skill of high-ability (75th percentile or above) students did not seem to be influenced by the ability of their peers.

"Children with high language abilities don't seem to be affected by the other kids in their class," said Justice.

Identifying low family income as a common factor in children with poor preschool language ability, Justice commented: "If we really want to help lift kids out of poverty, and use preschool as a way to make that happen, we need to reconsider how we provide that education."

She concluded: "Classrooms that blend students from different backgrounds are the best way to provide the boost that poor students need."

The results of this study are published in the journal Child Development.

By Helen Albert