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Growing up in Scotland: Changes in language ability over the primary school years.

Lookup NU author(s): Professor James LawORCiD



This is the final published version of a report published in its final definitive form in 2019. For re-use rights please refer to the publishers terms and conditions.


This report draws on measures of expressive language ability which were obtained for children participating in the Growing Up in Scotland study (GUS) at the time they were about to or had recently entered primary school (in 2009/10) and again when they were in Primary 6 (in 2014/15). Building on what is already known about differences in language ability and what might influence this up until entry to primary school, the report explores first whether there remains a ‘gap’ in expressive language ability between more and less advantaged children towards the end of the primary school period. It also considers whether the gap appears to have changed since the children started primary school. The report then identifies characteristics, circumstances and experiences present over the primary school years which appear to help or hinder children’s expressive language development, relative to their peers. In doing so, the report helps us understand more about what might help children improve during this period. The findings may therefore help policy makers and others target their efforts to reduce the attainment gap, as well as pointing to avenues for further research. Is there still a gap in expressive language ability between more and less advantaged children towards the end of primary school? The findings in this report indicate that the gap between more and less advantaged children persists and is evident as children reach the last years of primary school. This is the case irrespective of whether the gap is measured in relation to differences by family income, the level of area deprivation or parental level of education. Furthermore, the findings indicate that, if anything, this gap appears to have widened rather than narrowed since the children entered primary school. However, the data and analytical approach mean that we are not able to estimate by what margin the gap has widened. Notably, despite showing significant inequalities in average language ability between different groups of children – such as those in the highest and those in the lowest income households – the report also found evidence of significant variation in ability within these groups. For example, many children in lower income households had relatively high language ability whilst many in higher income households had relatively low ability. This suggests that whilst being from a disadvantaged social background increases the risk of poorer language skills, it does not necessarily equate to poorer language skills for all children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Similarly, and importantly, coming from a more advantaged background does not guarantee more advanced language development. 7 What might help (and what seems to hinder) improvement in language skills over the primary school period? The analysis only explains a limited amount of why some children show greater improvement in their language ability of the primary school period. Nevertheless, some factors which do appear to be associated with improvement are worth noting. First, the findings suggest that children with above average levels of social, emotional or behavioural difficulties tend to show a decline in their language ability relative to those children without social, emotional or behavioural difficulties, even when taking into account several other known differences between the children. This highlights the importance of policies and initiatives aimed at supporting children’s educational attainment taking into account other aspects of the child’s development – including their mental health and wellbeing. It also stresses the need to ensure that children with additional support needs associated with social and behavioural development are fully supported throughout primary school. Second, the report showed a positive relationship between frequent home reading when the child was approaching 8 years (when most children were in Primary 4) and a higher level of improvement in expressive language ability relative to their peers over the primary school period, including when other known differences such as parental education were taken into account. This may reflect that children who experience an improvement in their language ability develop (more of) an interest in reading. However, it may also be an indication that frequent home learning activities such as reading continue to have benefits for children’s language development beyond the early years, thus lending support to initiatives aimed at encouraging parents of school-aged children to engage their child(ren) in these activities. Finally, the findings indicate that over the primary school period the expressive language skills of children living in small towns and rural areas improve at a higher rate than those of children living in urban areas, also when accounting for differences in other characteristics and circumstances, including differences in their parents’ level of education. Whilst the report does not identify why such differences occur – for example, which systematic differences in growing up in small town and rural areas are particularly important for children’s expressive language development – this would be a useful avenue for further research to explore.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Knudsen L, Currie E, Bradshaw P, Law J, Wood R

Publication type: Report

Publication status: Published

Series Title:

Year: 2019

Pages: 1-71

Online publication date: 29/05/2019

Acceptance date: 01/06/2019

Place Published: Scottish Government;Edinburgh