Hot Off the Press: Children’s Earliest Concepts Are Key!

Hot Off the Press: Children’s Earliest Concepts Are Key to General Language Achievement at Age 3 and Kindergarten Readiness at Age 4

By Margaret Friend and Erin Smolak

Across the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada, the prevalence of language problems in children seven years of age and older is estimated to range from about three to eight percent of the population. Interestingly, studies show that, in the United States and Canada, roughly 40-50% of children 7 to 14 years of age referred for psychological services have an undiagnosed language problem. What this suggests is that there are many children for whom a language problem is not identified until at least school entry and that, when a problem is not identified, it can manifest in ways (think frustration) that are interpreted as signs of a different sort of problem! Some children are identified early, before starting school, based on parent concerns that sometimes lead to comprehensive assessment to identify the source of the difficulty and the most appropriate intervention but why doesn’t this happen more often?

One problem is that the assessments in current use are pretty good at detecting a problem starting at around age 4 but not earlier when, arguably, intervention might be more effective. Imagine a parent who notices a problem at age 2 but is told by the pediatrician to take a wait and see approach.  This is very common and it can result in parents deciding not to follow up for any number of reasons. What if we had  an assessment that is easy to administer, in which physicians have more confidence, and that could prospectively identify kids who were going to have language or school problems earlier?

Dr. Margaret Friend and Erin Smolak at San Diego State University and their colleagues Dr. Pascal Zesiger at the University of Geneva and Dr. Diane Poulin-Dubois at Concordia University have been working toward just such a solution.  Friend and colleagues decided to focus on the words that children knew across a variety of contexts when they were roughly two years of age. For example, a child might recognize the concept “milk” when they have it on their cereal for breakfast, see it in the grocery store, and even when they see a picture of a glass, bottle, or carton of milk! Concepts like this are the ones that children recognize consistently. The more of these concepts that children know, the researchers reasoned, the more ready they are to learn new concepts, including concepts that would help them in school. Using an instrument developed at San Diego State University, the Computerized Comprehension Task, they measured these concepts by asking children to touch images on a touch-sensitive screen that represented the kinds of words that they are learning at this age. Words they knew well were easy to recognize in this new setting.

In a new paper published in Developmental Psychology, Friend and colleagues found that the number of stable concepts in children’s vocabulary at age two predicted their readiness for kindergarten at age four. This finding held even when taking into account the education level of their mothers, their preschool attendance, and the sex of the child. What’s more, this finding was true whether children were growing up learning English in the United States, French in Switzerland, or both French and English in Canada!  The findings suggest that early, stable concepts in children’s vocabulary may provide the scaffolding for both later vocabulary and kindergarten readiness.

Friend and her colleagues then decided to see if, using the same measure of early concepts at age two, they could identify individual children who, by age three, needed more support in developing their language skills. Would children who only had a few stable concepts at age two be at risk for language problems at age three?  To answer this question, the researchers used several measures designed to give them a broad picture of children’s language development at age three.  In this new study, in press in Developmental Psychology, they found that using a measure of vocabulary that focused on stable concepts was superior to prior measures in predicting children’s general language ability at age three. More importantly, they were able to identify individual children who would were at risk for language problems a full two years earlier than prior studies. Also, like the study of kindergarten readiness, these findings held across languages.

This research is important because children with undiagnosed language problems have more difficulty in school, lower graduation rates, and lower employment rates. For these reasons and more, work must continue to help identify children at risk for language problems early to make it easier for them and their families to get the support they need to be successful. As the economist James Heckman has pointed out, early investment in children’s development produces the greatest returns for children, their families, and society.

Friend, M., **Smolak, E., **Liu, Y., Poulin-Dubois, D., & Zesiger, P. (2018).  A Cross-Language Study of Decontextualized Vocabulary Comprehension in Toddlerhood and Kindergarten Readiness. Developmental Psychology, 54, 1317-1333.

Friend, M., **Smolak, E., **Patrucco-Nanchen, T., Zesiger, P., & Poulin-Dubois, D. (in press). Language Status at Age 3: Group and Individual Prediction from Vocabulary Comprehension in the Second Year. Developmental Psychology, July 23, 2018.

**graduate student


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