Language as a child wellbeing indicator

Publication Details

Publication date: 27 September 2017

Authors: James Law, Jenna Charlton, Kirsten Asmussen

Early language acquisition impacts on all aspects of young children’s non-physical development. It contributes to their ability to manage emotions and communicate feelings, to establish and maintain relationships, to think symbolically, and to learn to read and write. While the majority of young children acquire language effortlessly, a significant minority do not.

The UK prevalence rate for early language difficulties is between 5% and 8% of all children, and over 20% for those growing up in low-income households. The high prevalence among disadvantaged children is thought to contribute to the achievement gap that exists by the time children enter school and continues until they leave.

It is well known that language difficulties predict problems in literacy and reading comprehension, but less well known that they may be indicative of problems in children’s behaviour and mental health as well. The evidence shows that children with poor vocabulary skills at age 5 are more likely to have reading difficulties as an adult, more likely to have mental health problems, and more likely to be unemployed. Because language and communication skills are so essential for school education and achievement, and future employment prospects, allowing less well-off children to fall behind in their language development risks undermining their life chances and perpetuating a cycle of disadvantage and poverty.

To ensure children with language development problems do not fall through the cracks, EIF is calling for early language development to be prioritised as a child wellbeing indicator, so that it must be treated as a public health issue, like vaccination, obesity and mental health. This change would make it clear that language development problems have serious consequences and require additional support, even when they are not the result of acute or clinical disorders.


What is a child wellbeing indicator, and why should language development be one? Find out more in a blog by report co-author Kirsten Asmussen

The language epidemic: Jean Gross sets out some key questions for experts and policymakers to achieve change


Other recommendations in this report cover:

  • improving monitoring of language development in the preschool years
  • further research on the impact of children language development on an individual’s life course
  • more robust evaluation of interventions aimed at children’s language development
  • the adoption of a common criteria and terminology for measuring and identifying language difficulties
  • a better understanding of the relationship between oral language skills and literacy in the education context
  • greater clarity from local authorities and schools regarding the offer they are making to parents of children with speech, language and communication needs.