Is language as poor as it looks?

Vocabulary and language tests show that preschool children from poorer socio-economic backgrounds have a disproportionate risk of language delay. What the tests do not show is whether language delay is due to limitations of the child’s language environment, or to intrinsic language-learning difficulties.

Dr Penny Roy’s study aimed to differentiate these factors using a new set of ‘core’ tests, the Early Repetition Battery (ERB). These tests have been shown to be less affected by socio-economic effects than standard tests, as they rely less on children’s past experience of language and testing.

Two groups of preschool children took part in the study: 200 from low socio-economic backgrounds, and 168 from mid-high socio-economic backgrounds. Both groups took the standard tests and the new ERB tests.

As expected, there were large and significant differences between the scores of the two groups on the standard tests, with children from more disadvantaged backgrounds scoring less well.

With the new tests, the researchers had predicted that the two groups would perform similarly, as these would be better at filtering out the children’s language environment, and would focus more on their intrinsic language-learning difficulties. Surprisingly, this was not the case, and children from low socio-economic backgrounds performed equally poorly on the new tests.

Does this mean their poor language reflects a language disorder? A number of further findings suggest this is not the case. One is that there was less of a gap between older children than younger children, on both the standard and new tests. This suggests that that for some of the younger children, poor performance was due to language delay rather than language disorder and that the older children had benefited from a year of school input.

The researchers are now following this up by reassessing the youngest children in their study, to compare whether the gap has also narrowed for them over time.

Project details



Professor Penny Roy, City University

Grant amount and duration


1 August 2009 - 30 November 2010



Language and Socioeconomic Disadvantage: From Research to Practice, Penny Roy, Shula Chiat, Barbara Dodd, City University, January 2015

Roy, P and Chiat S (2013). Teasing apart disadvantage from disorder: the case of poor language. Chapter in 'Current Issues in Developmental Disorders'.

'More to repetition than meets the ear, an examination of the use of imitation tests in preschool language assessment', Belinda Seeff -Gabriel, Shula Chiat and Penny Roy, City University 2010 

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This article was published in the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists’ Members’ Bulletin.