The alarming link between poor vocabulary and behaviour

A new study looks at the link between behaviour and vocabulary in two cohorts of children 30 years apart – the findings are striking and surprising
21st July 2021, 12:05pm


The alarming link between poor vocabulary and behaviour

When children present with behavioural problems at the start of primary school at age five, what impact can we predict this will have on the rest of their school career?

That is the question a new research paper from the University College London’s Institute of Education (IoE), published in the British Education Research Journal, set out to answer by comparing connections between misbehaviour at age five and subsequent performance in a multiple-choice vocabulary test at age 15, and also comparing the results between two different generations 30 years apart.

The researchers used data from the 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS70) that follows the lives of more than 17,000 people born in England, Scotland and Wales in one week of 1970, and the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS), a similar study of approximately 19,000 babies born between September 2000 and January 2002. 

The findings are wide-ranging but two main outcomes of note to schools are:

  • Children with reported behavioural problems at age five performed more poorly on a vocabulary test as teenagers in both cohorts.
  • Teenagers in the MCS performed more poorly on the vocabulary test in comparison to the 1970s cohort.

Tes spoke to Professor Alice Sullivan from the UCL Institute of Education, who was involved in the study, to discuss what the findings mean for teachers.

What did the data tell you about behaviour and vocabulary?

“We found children with emotional and behavioural problems at age five (start of primary) went on to have a relatively limited vocabulary as teenagers, and children with serious conduct and hyperactivity problems actually scored 12 per cent lower on a multiple-choice vocabulary test at ages 14 and 16.

“That was true for nationally representative cohorts from two generations born 30 years apart, in 1970 and 2000.”

Why do you think the children with behavioural difficulties from both cohorts performed more poorly on the vocabulary test?

“Using longitudinal data, following these children over time, allowed us to demonstrate that these emotional and behavioural problems have an ongoing impact on learning throughout the school years.

“This won’t surprise teachers because, when you look at the kinds of factors that feed into the scales of measuring childhood emotional and behavioural problems - irritable, disobedient, restless - these kinds of behaviours make learning more difficult.”

If the vocabulary test was the same in each study, why did the later generation perform worse? Were the words out of date?

“We thought about whether the nature of the test made it less valid over time but we looked at it very carefully and made sure we were selecting the right items which worked for both cohorts.

“We looked to see if there was a decline in the usage of the words used and we didn’t find any indication of a problem in the words we tested.”

What might have been the cause of the decline then?

“It could be a decline in reading books compared to spending time on other activities, such as online activities, could have led to a decline in vocabulary. [What we have] is just one piece of evidence but it suggests a need for further investigation.”

What can schools do to help address the problem?

“Behavioural problems are a major challenge for teachers because they affect the whole class, not just the disruptive child.

“In this study, the problems were reported by a parent, typically the mother. This tells us parents are able to report their child’s problems accurately, which suggests that early communication between the teacher and the parents on behavioural and emotional problems could be helpful.

“As children with behaviour problems and/or poor vocabulary acquisition at school entrance are often also socio-economically disadvantaged, to best support children and their families, it is vital that policy solutions consider all aspects of the family environment.

“If we tackle this early, children will have a better chance of avoiding the range of social and economic disadvantages in adult life that research has shown to be associated with early behaviour problems and poor language acquisition.”

Where do we go from here?

The findings are clearly notable - and perhaps not a surprise. After all, as Alex Quigley, the national content manager at the Education Endowment Foundation, former teacher and author of Closing the Reading Gap, notes, poor vocabulary skills have always been seen as a precursor to poor behaviour.

“We know that having the vocabulary to express yourself is so crucial to how you can learn, alongside your broad social and emotional development,” he says.

“Imagine, for example, if you are a young child in reception who cannot express your emotions verbally with confidence. Frustration and struggle is likely to characterise many of your school days. These small daily losses can inhibit your learning and prove to have a long term impact - from five to 15 years of age.”

However, he adds there is a need to look more closely at the links between behaviour and vocabulary to avoid drawing incorrect or simplistic conclusions.

“It is hard to untangle the causes and correlations when it comes to a child’s vocabulary, language development and their behaviours in school,” he says. 

“Is their behaviour and inability to self-regulate hampering their ability to learn in the classroom or is their limited vocabulary causing children to act out and misbehave?”

It seems clear the data will confirm to teachers and school leaders what we already know: paying close attention to vocabulary development is likely to pay academic dividends and offer vital behavioural, social and emotional gains for children, too. 

What should schools be doing now?

The other big issue the research throws up is why vocabulary tests scores decreased in the MCS group in the 2000s compared to the BCS study from the 1970s - and the knock-on impact this has on behaviour.

One key issue that Quigley pulls from this is that it is important to address the vocabulary needed to describe emotions with younger children. 

“[This data] highlights why it is so important to teach social and emotional skills, and the language of emotions, in primary school,” he says. 

“Equally, it is clearly important to teach vocabulary to access the school curriculum explicitly and effectively in every classroom. Of course, we should also support every teacher with sound behaviour systems so that they can establish those crucial daily routines that foster consistency and effective classroom communication.”

However, the fact this has declined over time - despite a widespread focus on improving PSHE and wider mental health challenges - is concerning, notes Quigley.

“The evidence revealing that teenagers today have a more limited vocabulary than 30 years ago is striking and worrying,” he says.

“More research is needed here, but the potential implications need to be recognised by school leaders and teachers.”


5 tips for leading on school behaviour

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