Mary Powell-Chandler says early language skills need to reach children in poverty.
As soon as I found out that I was to have a child (a long time ago), I dashed out and bought, not teeny pastel-coloured clothes, nor a mobile to hang over a yet-to-be purchased cot nor any number of cute cuddly toys – no, I couldn’t wait to buy some hard, brightly-coloured board books. My love of reading had started as a child and I couldn’t wait to introduce my child to the world of possibilities that lie inside an unopened book. In my arms, she looked on as I turned the pages; I held her hand and traced the route of Teddy going around the garden and helped her recreate Incey Wincey spider’s journey to the top of the spout. She grew to love these rhymes and stories and as the months and years went by, needed less and less input from me. At 18 months, she received the news that she was to become a ‘big sister’ via a story called The New Baby. Books were central to both girls’ lives from birth but little did I know then, that these early, fun experiences were making a significant difference to their futures.
Now, as a member of The Read On. Get On. campaign in Wales – a coalition of national literacy and communication organisations, charities, libraries, teaching unions and publishing agencies including Save the Children – all has become clear. Our most recent report provides evidence that speech and language in the early years, before a child starts school, is a key factor in their ability to read and thus to learn. The Ready to Read report shows how good quality support for children and parents in the early years can help improve language skills and ensure children start school ready and able to learn. The UK-wide coalition has set a goal to get every child reading well by age 11 in 2025 and in Wales we have set an interim goal to ensure that every child in Wales has good language skills by the time they start school by 2010.
Evidence presented in the Ready to Read report explains why children’s early language skills are so important for learning to read. We also show that children living in poverty are at the greatest risk of falling behind. Depressingly, one in four children growing up in poverty in Wales leave primary school unable to read well. This helps explain the persistent educational gap in Wales that each year, prevents thousands of our poorest children from fulfilling their potential. The evidence shows that without an increased commitment to children’s early language development, particularly for the poorest children, we will never achieve our goal of all children leaving primary school being able to read well. Boosting children’s early language skills is critical to narrowing the attainment gap and improving the life chances of our poorest children.
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.
Our new analysis from the Millennium Cohort Study shows 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. The analysis has found that 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.
This is why the Read On. Get On. campaign, whilst recognising the excellent initiatives introduced by the Welsh Government such as Flying Start, Time to Read and Education begins at Home, is calling for further investment in the early years workforce and support for parents during those critical, life-defining years. Specifically, we are asking for an increased focus on early language skills to reach all children, but particularly those living in poverty.
We all recognise that there is only a finite amount of resource available in Wales but surely increased investment in our children makes the most sense of all. Just like Incey Wincey spider climbing and re-climbing the spout, we cannot be put off by the challenges we encounter, but together strive to build a country where all children achieve their full potential.