Socioeconomic status played role in preschoolers' language development during pandemic: Study

“We hope society, especially government, will be aware of these findings [and] continue to monitor children’s language development"

(photo by mediaphotos/Getty Images)

When it came to learning language, money mattered for pandemic pre-schoolers.

That’s the finding of a new study, published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychologyby researchers in the Child Language and Speech Studies (CLASS) Lab at the University of Toronto Mississauga.

Priscilla Fung (supplied image)

Priscilla Fung, a fifth-year PhD student, was in the midst of studying the vocabulary development of pre-schoolers when Ontario implemented a COVID-19 lockdown in 2020. But rather than abandon the research, Fung and the CLASS team – Thomas St. PierreMomina Raja and Fung’s supervisor, psychology professor Elizabeth Johnson – pivoted to a new question: How would the lockdown affect the children’s language skills?

“Since we already had the pre-pandemic information, we thought it would be interesting to compare,” says Fung, who followed the test group of 365 pre-schoolers (ages 11-34 months) and their parents with Zoom meetings and standardized vocabulary assessments.

“Ontario had one of the longest lockdowns in the world, which meant young children were at home more, but their parents faced unprecedented difficulties and had to juggle work and household duties, with no daycare or grandparents available to look after the kids,” says Fung, who holds both master’s and bachelor’s degrees in psychology from U of T. “Stress went up, but reading time went down as parents had to leave children in front of the TV for hours and hours while they worked.”

Fung said the researchers hypothesized the children’s vocabulary would take a hit as screen time was already known to be a factor that negatively affects language development.

“It does make a difference, though, whether the screen time was passive, like TV, or interactive like a Zoom call where people were speaking with them,” says Fung, whose research interests also include early childhood bilingualism.

While the data showed that the fallout was fairly mild for most kids, it found that children 19- to 29-months-old from lower socioeconomic status (SES) families experienced delays in vocabulary development – the same group that reported the highest amount of passive screen time. 

Fung says the study suggests those with higher income – study participants reported anywhere from $45,000 to $140,000 per household – were able to access resources to provide enrichment activities that helped mitigate language delays.

“We are very interested in following up [with lower socioeconomic status families] and hope to keep monitoring this group to see how they progress after this,” she says, adding that early language development is known to be critical to later cognitive and literacy success, with delays linked to psychosocial and behavioural problems.

The research should spur policymakers to pay more attention to children from lower socioeconomic families during times of crisis and stress.

“We hope society, especially government, will be aware of these findings [and] continue to monitor children’s language development, especially in lower SES families,” says Fung, who adds that the study underscores the benefits of encouraging all parents to interact and read with their children.

The study was funded by grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and U of T Mississauga’s Research and Scholarly Activity Fund.

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