Fernanda Lucchese, M.A., & Catherine S. Tamis-LeMonda, Ph.D., Department of Applied Psychology, New York University
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Early language development is rooted in the interactions children have with their parents, significant caregivers, childcare providers, and peers. These early social exchanges both foster developing language skills and provide a vital foundation for children’s school readiness and academic achievement.
Countless studies indicate that social risk factors, such as chronic poverty and low parental education, pose serious obstacles to children’s early language development and subsequent school performance. The long-term effects of such risks create a challenge for remedial programs, which many times fail to succeed at the goal of “leveling the playing field”. Because risks such as poverty and low parental education are prevalent in minority populations, children from ethnic and racial minority backgrounds are more likely to display poor academic outcomes and school drop out than the population at large. This entry addresses the importance of supporting language development and learning early in life, and highlights the need to better promote language competencies in children from low-income and minority backgrounds.
For decades, researchers, policy makers, and educators have been dedicated to identifying and ameliorating the risk factors that interfere with children’s language development. Much of this work has focused on three areas of risk: Poverty, low parental education, and minority status. Moreover, researchers have sought to identify the mediating mechanisms through which these risk factors might influence children’s development. In particular, parenting, childcare, and parental mental health are thought to explain (at least in part) the effects of risk factors on children’s early language development and learning (e.g. McLoyd, 1990; Guo & Harris, 2000; Hoff, 2003). Research on both risk factors and mediating processes has served as a springboard for the design of intervention policies and programs for families and children. Many policies and programs target poverty directly (e.g. welfare, food stamps, and health care assistance), and others seek to modify mediating factors (e.g. family literacy, parenting programs, and daycare services).
Key Research Questions and Recent Research Results
Research questions relevant to the topic of language development in disadvantaged populations can be classified into three main areas of inquiry: (1) Questions about the effects of distal risk factors (e.g., poverty) on development; (2) Questions about the role of mediating processes (e.g., parenting) in explaining associations to children’s development; and (3) Questions about the effectiveness of various interventions and programs on children’s development.
Q1: To what extent are distal factors such as poverty, parental education, and minority status associated with children’s language development?
Poverty places children at risk for cognitive, academic, and social-emotional problems (McLoyd, 1998; Smith, Brooks-Gunn, & Klebanov, 1997). More specifically, the timing and prevalence of poverty have the greatest influence on children’s development (Brooks-Gunn & Duncan, 1997). Studies consistently show that low-income children lag behind their peers in language skills from early on (Hoff, 2003; Walker, Greenwood, Hart, & Carta, 1994; Bee et al., 1982). Low-income children develop vocabularies up to four times slower than higher-income children (Arriaga et al, 1998; Feldman et al., 2000; Hart & Risley, 1995); in addition, low socio-economic status (SES) is associated with lower language promoting experiences during the preschool years, which in turn predict lower receptive language abilities during kindergarten and beyond, and decreased reading and spelling competencies in the early school years (Walker et al., 1994).
In addition to poverty, parental education is strongly associated with children’s language skills and academic and cognitive outcomes (Hess, Holloway, Dickinson & Price, 1984; Chandler, Nord, Lennon & Liu, 1999). Parents with more years of education provide greater material, social and human resources to their children (USDE NCES, 2001). They are also more likely to provide enriched literacy environments for their infants and toddlers at home; including onset, frequency and duration of shared bookreading, and the use of more expansive vocabularies during learning interactions (Raikes et al., 2006; Payne, Whitehurst, & Angell, 1994). Usually low parental education is associated with chronic poverty, in contrast to the transient poverty of more educated individuals who may live in poverty for brief periods.
As a result of high poverty rates (US Bureau of the Census, 2006; Canada, Standing Committee, 1991) and low parental education (USDE NCES, 2001), minority children are at a disadvantage in their language development during infancy and the preschool years. Estimates show that 50% of the parents of Hispanic school-age children, and 20% of parents of African-American children lack a high school diploma (USDE NCES, 2001). Even though minority and immigrant status are not risk factors per se, minorities have more deficient communicative skills and lower cognitive scores than white children on average (Walker et al., 1994; Ogbu, 1990). Children between the ages of 3 and 5 from minority backgrounds demonstrate lower school readiness scores (across 5 dimensions, including language development; NEGP, 1995) than white children of the same age (Chandler et al., 1999). Furthermore, immigrant children may suffer from acculturation stressors and language barriers (Perez Foster, 2001; Beiser, 1999). For example, children whose maternal home language is different from mainstream language score substantially lower in early school readiness skills than children whose home language matches the mainstream (Chandler et al., 1999). As immigrant populations increase, particularly in urban areas of the US and Canada, programs should focus on helping children who are foreign language speakers make the transition to mainstream language classrooms. Overall, minorities suffer from cross-generational socioeconomic difficulties, which hinder them from rising above the poverty lines, creating a vicious cycle.
Q2: Which proximal factors mediate associations between the distal factors and children’s language development?
Researchers frequently highlight the role of family socio-economic status (SES) in children’s language development (Hoff, 2003). SES is associated with parents’ language and cognitive stimulation of children, parental mental health, children’s participation in learning activities, and parental sensitivity (Evans, 2004; Hart & Risley, 1995; Brophy-Herb et al., 1999; Farran & Ramey, 1980). Consequently, extensive research has been conducted on the language interactions of low-income and minority children in efforts to advance knowledge on precisely how SES comes to affect children’s language development (Guo & Harris, 2000; Bloom & Lahey, 1978; Hart & Risley, 1992).
This work indicates that parents’ engagements of children in learning activities (such as bookreading or storytelling), the availability of learning materials, and parenting quality (e.g., responsiveness) are important aspects of the early learning environment (Tamis-LeMonda, Cristofaro, Rodriguez & Bornstein, 2005). In terms of learning activities, parents from lower SES households engage in less bookreading with their young toddlers than do more educated mothers. In terms of learning materials, children from poor families have less access to books and toys than those from non-poor families. Similarly, poor parents are less likely to play language games or use interactive communications with their young children (Walker et al., 1994; Hart & Risley, 1992). In terms of parenting quality, responsiveness is consistently associated with children’s language development. Responsiveness refers to parents’ prompt and positive verbal replies to children’s vocalizations, exploration, and play. Affirmations, descriptions, and play prompts, are all examples of positive responsiveness (Tamis-LeMonda, Bornstein, & Baumwell, 2001). Children of more responsive mothers have larger receptive vocabularies at 9-months (Baumwell et al., 1997), larger productive vocabularies at 13-months (Bornstein & Tamis-LeMonda, 1989), and attain language milestones such as combining words into simple sentences sooner in development (Tamis-LeMonda et al., 2001). In a study of parental engagement in families of low-income, ethnically diverse backgrounds, paternal level of education, income and marital status were found to be associated with both mother’s and father’s quality of engagement, sensitivity and cognitive stimulation, which predicted the language and cognitive development of their toddlers (Tamis-LeMonda, Shannon, Cabrera & Lamb, 2004).
However, children’s language experiences extend well beyond the family network. Paralleling the growing number of mothers in the workforce (US Bureau of the Census, 1998), increasing numbers of children are attending daycare centers or family daycare from an early age. Hence, during the hours that children are not interacting with their parents, experiences in home- or center-based childcare settings are essential for promoting children’s language development. High-quality center-based care, characterized by sensitive and stimulating caregiving is associated with higher cognitive and language skills in children (Hankins, 1989; Anderson, 1992; Lazar & Darlington, 1982). Even though more center-based care hours early in life may predict more behavior problems, it also predicts higher language and cognitive skills (NICHD ECCN, 2006). Vocabulary rich childcare environments, in which children have opportunities to engage in conversations that nurture explanations, narratives, or pretend talk are essential for later literacy (De Temple, 2001; Dickinson & Tabors, 2001; Katz, 2001; Beals, 2001). Unfortunately, disadvantaged children are less likely to experience high-quality center-based care (NICHD ECCRN, 1997). Some characteristics of childcare centers that serve low-income communities are larger child-caregiver ratios, low caregiver warmth, sensitivity, and responsiveness to children, and the use of more authoritative commands and less open-ended questioning by caregivers (Phillips et al., 1994). However, it is also the case that children from families who fall below the poverty line receive more high-quality, center-based care through governmentally funded programs such as Head Start, than children from working poor or middle-class families (Lamb, 1998). Combined home and preschool positive stimulation is very beneficial for children’s language development. Some researchers find that children who experience low-home and high-preschool stimulation have higher kindergarten abilities than those who experience high-home and low-preschool stimulation (Dickinson & Tabors, 2001; Caughy, DiPietro,& Strobino, 1994). Thus, a stimulating preschool environment may sometimes buffer the adverse effects of a low-stimulating home environment, and is essential even for children who have high-stimulating homes. With 80% of young children receiving non-maternal care in the US (West, Denton, & Germino-Hausken, 2000), high-quality early childhood programs should be available to at- risk children.
Parental mental health also plays a role in children’s language and learning. Parental psychopathology, such as maternal depression, jeopardizes parental sensitivity and cognitive stimulation, both of which are central to language development in young children (Cohn, Campbell, Matias, & Hopkins, 1990; Field, 1995). Maternal prenatal psychopathology (e.g., stress and depression) is thought to affect children directly by changing the fetus’ physiological development (e.g. high cortisol levels in mother’s blood stream increase the likelihood of low-birth weight, which is associated with cognitive and language delays; Sohr-Preston, & Scaramella, 2006). On the other hand, maternal postnatal and chronic depression indirectly affects the socio-emotional and cognitive development of children through effects on the quality of early parent-child interactions (Carter et al., 2001). A meta-analytic study shows that low-SES individuals are more prone to depression, have higher psychiatric co-morbidity, and have poorer prognosis when compared to higher social class individuals (Lorant et al., 2002). Furthermore, certain cohorts of mothers, who are more likely to live below poverty lines (e.g., African American, Hispanic, teenage, and single mothers) show increased incidence of depression during pregnancy (Halbreich, 2004). Interventions targeting parenting skills in depressed mothers have shown beneficial results for young children’s language and cognitive development (Ciccheti et al., 2000; Bigatti, Cronan, & Anaya, 2001).
Finally, family structure may also place some young children at risk for lower language performance. Children who live in single-parent households are at greater risk of living in poverty and of displaying developmental delays (McLoyd, 1998; National Council of Welfare, 2004). About 16% of Canadian and 25% of American children live in single-parent families (Lipman, Offord, & Dooley, 1996; US Bureau of the Census, 1990). Poor, single mothers report feeling more depressed than poor married mothers (Weinraub & Wolf, 1983). Father absence is also a risk factor for children’s language development. Studies of low-income, minority parents show that father’s involvement with caregiving or financial support of the child is associated with positive parenting skills and greater cognitive and language outcomes in toddlers (Black, Dubowitz & Starr, 1999; Tamis-LeMonda, et al., 2004).
Q3: What efforts might be implemented to foster the language development of children from disadvantaged backgrounds?
The above findings are relevant to policy makers, educators and practitioners who seek to promote the positive language development of children. Interventions and preventive efforts can target distal factors directly (e.g., through incentive programs that increase income) or aim to affect proximal mediating factors (e.g., parenting, childcare, and mental health).
Remedial programs that target distal factors include those that increase family income, tax credits, welfare benefits, and minimum wage, and therefore allow for better material resources at home, decreased parental stress due to financial difficulty, and safer physical home environments. For example, in 1998 the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) in the US was shown to lift 2.2 million children out of poverty (Sawhill & Thomas, 2001). Other US governmental programs that improve children’s well-being are food stamps, the WIC Program (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children; providing nutritious food supplements, healthy habits information, and health care referrals), health insurance, childcare assistance, transportation, and housing. A combination of government assistance programs may increase the quality of life for many living in poverty. The New Hope project is an example of an antipoverty program, which provided wage supplements, subsidies for childcare and health insurance, and advice and services to parents. Families that received this intervention had more material resources, social support, and reported less stress than controls (Huston et al., 2001). Such programs may affect the language development of children indirectly by alleviating the stressors of poverty.
Even though the above programs may decrease the effects of distal factors on the development of disadvantaged children, early childhood interventions that target proximal factors can promote language development more directly. The Early Head Start and Head Start programs are examples of how child and family services (e.g. high quality daycare, and parenting skills promotion) can impact the language, cognitive, and socio-emotional development of at-risk young children. Besides providing learning daycare environments, these programs promote better parenting skills, sensitivity, and language-learning interactions in low-income families (Love et al., 2002; Love et al., 2005). The seminal Carolina Abecederian Project, another early childhood program targeting low-income children’s cognitive development, starting from the age of 4-months until school age, reported large effect-sizes on cognitive and language development at age 3 (Campbell & Ramey, 1994).
Furthermore, other programs emphasize parent-child interactions and therapy for parents who suffer from mental health disorders. Producing Infant/Mother Ethnic Readers (PRIMER; Bigatti et al., 2001) is an example of a project designed to improve mother-child interactions in order to improve the language development of children of depressed mothers. Toddler-Parent Psychotherapy (TPP) has also proven to be an effective measure towards fostering positive mother-infant communication patterns and preventing common cognitive deficits in children of depressed mothers (Cichetti et al., 2000).
Finally, the sensitivity of educators and interventionists to the cultural beliefs and practices of minority groups is an essential ingredient for the success of language-promoting programs on disadvantaged children (Garcia Coll, 1990). Also, in order to decrease acculturation stressors in newly arrived immigrants, social support has proven to ebb the incidence of illness and stress (De La Rosa, 1988). The Citizen and Immigration Canada (CIC)-funded settlement programs, such as the HOST program, designed to help newcomers assimilate into Canadian culture, are examples of governmental efforts toward improving social capital through support of the like-ethnic communities of newly arriving immigrants (CIC, 2006). Similarly, bilingual educational services and assessments should be available for immigrant children in order to provide them with proper cognitive evaluations and preparation to join monolingual or mainstream classrooms.
Future Directions and Conclusions
Despite a long history of programs and policies aimed at preventing school failure and drop out, the increasing number of children who are referred to special education classrooms highlights the fact that more needs to be done to effectively promote school readiness and achievement in at-risk populations. Efforts to promote language and cognitive development in disadvantaged children should target both distal as well as proximal factors. Moreover, efforts should begin early in development, at the onset of language, so that children are supported in their development of foundational skills that pave the way for later learning and school performance.
This research was supported by the National Science Foundation Grant BCS# 021859, which has provided the funding for NYU’s Center for Research on Culture, Development, and Education.
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