Can reading difficulties at primary school be predicted by vocabulary skills in infants?

14 August 2015

Vocabulary skills in one- and two-year-olds are related to later achievement in reading and language at primary schools, although the relationship is not strong enough to justify using measurement of infant vocabulary to identify individual children at risk of language or reading difficulties. 

These findings are from a research project led by Professor Kate Nation at the University of Oxford and funded by the Nuffield Foundation.

The research team used the Oxford Communicative Development Inventory (OCDI), a parent-completed checklist of how many words infants can understand and say, to measure language skills in a group of 300 one- and two-year-olds. They then assessed the reading and language skills of the same group of children when they were in primary school. 

In general, children who had larger vocabularies in infancy went on to achieve higher levels of language and literacy in primary school.

However, the relationship between infant skills and school-age performance was not strong enough to support the recommendation that the OCDI be used to identify individual infants who might be at significant risk for later language and literacy difficulties.

"Family risk"

The study found that the prediction of which infants might go on to have reading difficulties was significantly improved by considering their family history. Infants with smaller vocabularies who came from a family where there was a history of reading or language difficulties were more likely to show reading difficulties themselves than children without family risk.

"Late talkers"

In collaboration with Professor Dorothy Bishop, the researchers took a closer look at those children identified in infancy as late talkers. In general, these children were at no greater risk than average talkers. However, those children who continued to show language difficulties at four years of age were at significant risk for reading and language impairments later on in primary school.