This has not been a normal year. In England, three national lockdowns profoundly affected the usual schedules of children and their families, meaning children were not able to attend preschool or school settings for a large proportion of the year.
As a parent of primary school age children (one just starting reception class) I know some of the effects lockdown has had on my children. And us, their parents. First on the list is exhaustion. But through this veil of exhaustion, I’ve been wondering more generally what the effects on children’s language development have been.
Children’s early language experience has a deep and long-lasting effect on children’s development. The differences in language skills between children when they arrive in reception class at primary school persist throughout the child’s schooling: the same differences will be seen when children finish their formal schooling 11 years later.
It is likely that lockdown has had a big effect on children’s language development. A preliminary report by Claudine Bowyer-Crane and colleagues for the Education Endowment Foundation reported their survey results showing that 96% of primary schools were concerned about language development for reception age children, and 56% of parents of primary school children were also concerned1. But evidence is still scarce on the exact effects of lockdown, though it is likely that effects have been dramatically varied for different children2.
For instance, children’s access to school resources has not been equal, and consequently access to support for language and literacy will have been affected. Ofcom recently reported that 20% of schoolchildren did not have access to an appropriate device to access home-schooling resources3. Even for those homes with devices, schools provided different resources ranging from online, interactive classes through to only printed resources. We know that interaction with children supports their language development, with active conversation more effective than passive learning4, and so opportunities for learning from school will have varied. Children will also have missed out on interacting with their peers. Children learn a lot of language from other children5, and you get an impression of this when talking to a teenager whose vocabulary can be incomprehensible.
We know that children’s language development in early years is almost entirely due to the quantity and quality of the language the child hears6. In lockdown, with multiple conflicting requirements on households you might think that the time for talk will have reduced. In some pilot work in LuCiD, surveying 64 parents of children aged 1 to 4 years old, we found that screentime (TV and mobile devices) for children did increase about 50% which is not best news for talk. But actually, in this group of families, we found that time for talk also increased. Parents increased the time they spent with their children by more than 35%, and spent 20% more time reading with their child.
So, the jury is still out on the effects of lockdown. Nevertheless, there are always simple tips to follow to help increase the quantity and quality of talk with children7 regardless of what else is going on in life. (Find out more in this short evidence briefing which summarises the evidence on quantity and quality of infant-directed speech and includes some useful tips on language boosting behaviours). It’s often not possible to stop and talk with a child, but just providing a running commentary of what you’re up to – cooking, folding laundry, gardening – can help children to expand their vocabulary. Asking children questions – especially about what they have been doing, or what they are going to do, can support children to understand longer sentences which in turn helps their own speech. And above all, if you (ever) have a moment free, reading to your child is the best thing you can possibly do to support their language8.
Useful resources for supporting language development
- Quantity and quality of child-directed speech: Which matters most?
- How can parents support their children's language development?
- How does shared book-reading boost child language development?
- How can our responses to babies' gestures help with their language development?
- BBC's Tiny Happy People activities, resources and short films
2. Education Endowment Foundation (2021). Best evidence on impact of Covid-19 on pupil attainment. Accessed 30 April 2021 [https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/]
4. Anderson DR, Pempek TA (2005) Television and very young children. American Behavioral Scientist 48: 505–522.
7. ICAN (2020). Talk together: Helping babies and young children learn skills for talking. [https://ican.org.uk/]