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We can boost children’s chances in life by improving their vocabulary

Ahead of Public Health England’s conference, which takes place this week, lead nurse Wendy Nicholson looks at the importance of addressing the word gap for children between 0-5 and how a new programme aims to support health visitors to do this

Ahead of Public Health England’s conference, which takes place this week, Wendy Nicholson looks at the importance of addressing the word gap for children between 0-5 and how a new programme aims to support health visitors to do this


Picture: iStock

Helping children to develop strong speech, language and communication skills allows them to thrive in their early years and into adulthood. Language is a primary indicator of child well-being, given its links to other social, emotional and learning outcomes. 

A greater vocabulary at school entry can improve academic achievement and decrease the risk of children experiencing a range of emotional, social and behavioural challenges as they get older. 

Language and wealth disparities

Language development at two – by which point the brain will have reached about 80% of its adult size – strongly predicts children’s performance on entry to primary school.

While almost all children learn to communicate through language, there are strong and persistent differences in their ability to do so and a child’s socio-economic background is an important factor. By age three there is already a 17-month income-related language gap, with children from disadvantaged groups twice as likely to experience language delay. 

This has consequences for children not just at school but also in later life: five-year-olds with poor vocabulary are three times more likely to experience mental ill-health as adults, while two-thirds of 7-14 year olds with serious behaviour problems have language impairment.

Reducing the inequality

Progress in closing the word gap for our youngest children will tackle health inequalities and reduce pressure on frontline health and social care services, as these children progress to adulthood. Exposure to a depth and breadth of vocabulary in the early years and access to a rich home learning environment, supported by high-quality early years provision and health visitor support, is essential. 

‘Health visitors are the professional leads supporting children aged 0-5 and their families to have the best start in life’

Public Health England is working with the Department for Education on a new programme of work to promote language and literacy at home. This will focus on strengthening the role of health visitors in promoting language-rich environments before birth, during the crucial year after birth and as children reach two years of age. 

Tools and training

Working with experts and health visitors we will develop evidence-based resources and training for the health visiting workforce; this will ensure that parents are able to access expert advice at the earliest opportunity, where there are concerns about a child’s language development. It will also offer advice on effective ways of working with early years settings to ensure every child gets the best start in life. 

Health visitors are the professional leads supporting children aged 0-5 and their families to have the best start in life. This programme of work will build on their expertise and skills, supporting early identification and swift support or special referral for children who need it most. 

Over the next two years we will develop new tools and training that will be offered to health visitors. We anticipate the initial training will commence in early 2019. This will be delivered to a number of early implementer sites before being rolled out further through a ‘train the trainer’ approach. 

We want to ensure health visitors have access to training to ensure all children can benefit and that we can close the word gap, helping ensure longer and healthier lives for the next generation.


About the author

Wendy Nicholson is national lead nurse, children, young people and families, Public Health England
 

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