Stellenbosch Papers in Linguistics Plus

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Does socioeconomic level have an effect on school-age language skills in a developed country?

Ondene van Dulm, Frenette Southwood


Socioeconomic status (SES) has been reported in several contexts as a predictor of child language skills. This study questions whether this holds true for New Zealand, a developed country in which government provides funding for additional academic support to low-SES schoolchildren. The language of 67 typically-developing, English-speaking 5- to 7-year-olds (40 high SES, 27 low SES) was assessed using two normed instruments (the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (Australian) (Dunn and Dunn 2007) and the Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals (Australian) (Semel, Wiig and Secord 2006)) and one unnormed instrument (the Receptive and Expressive Activities for Language Therapy; Southwood and Van Dulm 2012). Although the low-SES group had significantly lower scores than the high-SES group on the two normed instruments, all participants’ scores were within the expected age norms on these instruments. The low-SES group had significantly lower scores on the Receptive and Expressive Activities for Language Therapy for comprehension of articles, binding relations, passive constructions and wh questions, and for production of passives and conjunctions. The language of young New Zealand schoolchildren thus appears similarly vulnerable to SES effects as those of children elsewhere. The question arises as to what can be done to allow these children to develop the language skills that will allow them to function optimally in the school context.

Keywords: socioeconomic status, later-developing language skills, New Zealand
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