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Poor English skills linked to lengthy learning difficulties

Posted on 20/09/2016

Children who start school with poor English language skills are more likely to develop social, emotional and behavioural issues in later years, a new study from Royal Holloway and UCL has found.

Researchers from the Department of Psychology also found that the advantages of bilingualism tend to help with academic achievement only if English skills are sufficient at school entry for the child to be fully engaged. Whether its children’s first or additional language, those without a good grasp of English will need extra support early on to bridge the gap.

Falling behind

 “We anticipated that kids who had poor English skills at the start due to a lack of exposure at home would be doing well by Year 2, but actually, their poor outcomes persisted. They didn’t just grow out of it with more time in the English school system,” said Professor Courtenay Norbury (former Royal Holloway Professor, now with the UCL Psychology & Language Sciences Department), one of the authors of the paper.

Researchers compared children who speak English as a second language with children whose first language is English and who had similar proficiency. Academic achievement between the two groups was similar in Reception, though children who spoke more than one language had fewer emotional, social, and behavioural difficulties. They were also more likely to meet academic targets by Year 2.

Looking to the future

“The ideal solution would be to measure their skills in their first language to gauge whether the issue is from lack of exposure to English or a general language impairment, but that isn’t feasible given the diversity of home languages spoken by children in the UK. Just in our cohort there were 60 languages represented. But we found that measuring their skills in English, while not perfect, is a helpful predictor of future success,” said Katie Whiteside, a PhD student in the Department of Psychology at Royal Holloway, University of London, and the study’s lead author.


The researchers used data from the four year Surrey Communication and Language in Education Study (SCALES), based at Royal Holloway. Led by Professor Norbury, SCALES is the first UK population study of risk for language impairment at school entry. Teachers provided ratings of English language proficiency and of social, emotional and behavioural function, based on a questionnaire, for children at the end of their reception year at a primary school in Surrey. The group included 782 children with English as an additional language and 6,485 monolingual children. The researchers gauged their progress with national education assessment data for the same children at the end of Year 2.

“Numerous studies have found speaking more than one language can enhance academic performance, so we would encourage parents to continue speaking their first language with their children. Our findings underline that oral language proficiency is a key predictor of early school success for all children, whether they are monolingual or bilingual,” said Professor Norbury.

The research received funds from Wellcome, and Katie Whiteside was supported by a Crossland Research Scholarship. The study is published in the journal Child Development. You can find out more about the research by the Department of Psychology at Royal Holloway by looking at our news pages or by visiting their website.


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