Levers for language growth: Characteristics and predictors of language trajectories between 4 and 7 years.


Background: Evidence is required as to when and where to focus resources to achieve the greatest gains for children’s language development. Key to these decisions is the understanding of individual differences in children’s language trajectories and the predictors of those differences. To determine optimal timing we must understand if and when children’s relative language abilities become fixed. To determine where to focus effort we must identify mutable factors, that is those with the potential to be changed through interventions, which are associated with significant differences in children’s language scores and rate of progress. Methods: Uniquely this study examined individual differences in language growth trajectories in a population sample of children between 4 and 7 years using the multilevel model for change. The influence of predictors, grouped with respect to their mutability and their proximity to the child (least-mutable, mutable-distal, mutable-proximal), were estimated. Results: A significant degree of variability in rate of progress between 4 and 7 years was evident, much of which was systematically associated with mutable-proximal factors, that is, those factors with evidence that they are modifiable through interventions with the child or family, such as shared book reading, TV viewing and number of books in the home. Mutable-distal factors, such as family income, family literacy and neighbourhood disadvantage, hypothesised to be modifiable through social policy, were important predictors of language abilities at 4 years. Conclusions: Potential levers for language interventions lie in the child’s home learning environment from birth to age 4. However, the role of a family’s material and cultural capital must not be ignored, nor should the potential for growth into the school years. Early Years services should acknowledge the effects of multiple, cascading and cumulative risks and seek to promote child language development through the aggregation of marginal gains in the preschool years and beyond.