For Parents

For Parents

Reading Comprehension & Early Language Skills

Investigating the relationship between language delay in the toddler years and reading comprehension in 5th grade


What is developmental language impairment?

Developmental language impairment, also called developmental language disorder, is a term that describes children who have significant difficulty in learning to use language but who do not have any other known disorders. In other words, the child’s language delay is not a result of autism, an intellectual disability, or a genetic syndrome. Developmental language impairment does not have any known cause. Children have difficulty with language comprehension (understanding language) and with language expression (using language to communicate a message).


How does developmental language impairment relate to reading?

There are two key parts to reading: decoding and comprehension. Decoding refers to the ability to recognize individual words based on their spelling and sounds. For example, knowing how to read the letters d-o-g as the word “dog.” Reading comprehension is the ability to understand the message of the text. For example, understanding the meaning of the sentence “the dog was hungry” in addition to being able to read the words. Reading comprehension is related to language comprehension. Research indicates that children who have difficulty with reading comprehension in the later elementary school years share similar features to children with developmental language impairment. Furthermore, some believe that difficulty with language skills contributes to challenges in reading comprehension.


What did the researchers study?

A recent study conducted by Yaacov Petscher and colleagues looked at the relationship between children’s language difficulties and reading comprehension skills. The researchers were interested in the growth-trajectories of children who tested as having poor reading comprehension in fifth grade. Growth-trajectories means looking at how a child’s skills change over time. The investigators wanted to determine if children with poor reading comprehension in fifth grade had poor language skills early in life. They also wanted to see if their language skills became more delayed over time compared to their peers.


To analyze this relationship, they looked at old records of students from a large research database. They looked at children who completed fifth grade reading testing and separated them into three different groups: poor reading comprehension, poor decoding skills, and typical reading skills. Then they looked back into each child’s records to see how the children performed on language tests at 15, 24, 36, and 54 months.


What is the Matthew Effect?

The Matthew Effect describes a phenomenon where those who have difficulty in a certain area fall further behind over time. An example of this is the common saying “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” The researchers hypothesized that the Matthew Effect impacts fifth graders with poor reading comprehension. In other words, a child’s early difficulty with language results in them lagging more and more behind their peers over time. These children gain skills at a slower rate which widens the gap between them and their peers.


What did the study find?

The results confirmed the researchers’ hypothesis. They found that children who had poor reading comprehension in fifth grade had below average language skills as toddlers. They also found that their skills worsened over time compared to other types of readers. From age 15 months to age 4.5, their language skills fell further and further behind those who would end up being typical readers and those who would end up struggling with decoding. This suggests that poor comprehenders may have a weak language system that becomes more obvious as they age and get more demands placed on them. In other words, the authors argue that difficulty with reading comprehension is a symptom of an underlying developmental language impairment that was present early on in life.


What does it mean?

Although more research has to be done on this topic, the findings highlight the importance of early language intervention. If not addressed, difficulties with language in toddlerhood can lead to larger delays over time and difficulty with reading in elementary school. Speech and language therapy in the early years can help children who present with developmental language disorder. Working with language and reading skills with your child at home, such as during shared book reading, can also be helpful in developing language skills.


Petscher, Y., Justice, L., & Hogan, T. (2017). Modeling the early language trajectory of language development when the measures change and its relation to poor reading comprehension. Child Development. doi:10.1111/cdev.12880