Exposure to Language and Later Academic Achievement Linked to Socioeconomic Status


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Start language exposure early. Image by milan6

Start language exposure early, to improve your baby’s vocabulary later on. Image by milan6

A family’s socioeconomic status, and the language they use with and around their children, affects the future academic performance of their kids. What can parents do to improve chances of academic success for their children?

Early Exposure to Language

Research, including a 2013 paper by Erika Hoff, shows clearly that children who have more exposure to language acquire language more rapidly. Furthermore, studies reveal that the type of language a child hears can affect future language development and academic achievement.

One of the early researchers in this area, Professor of Developmental Psychology, Erika Hoff, on the faculty of Florida Atlantic University, analyzed the impacts of socioeconomic status on the language trajectory of kids – and established back in 2003 that socioeconomic status and mother’s speech affects early vocabulary development.

Hoff analyzed transcripts of tapes of naturalistic interactions between 33 high-SES and 30 mid-SES mothers and their 2-year-old children over two visits 10 weeks apart. She discovered that as compared to the mid-SES children, high-SES children grew more in the size of their productive vocabularies, that is in the amount of words they were speaking. The main influence on this growth rate was found to be the SES of the mother and the content of her speech.

Language Development and Socioeconomic Status

In a series of interviews, Decoded Science took the opportunity to discuss the issue of language development of children with  Professor Hoff, and find out what part SES plays if any in language development.

Decoded Science: How important is the amount and type of language young children hear?

Professor Hoff: Language acquisition depends on the quantity and quality of language exposure. Language acquisition is not the result of children being rewarded for successive approximations to adult speech nor is it the result of maturation. Language acquisition is the result of children’s analysis of the speech they hear.

Decoded Science: So the amount of speech they hear is critical to their rate of language development?

Professor Hoff: Yes, research shows that children who hear more speech learn language faster than children who hear less speech.

Decoded Science: Is it important at what age children are exposed to speech?

Professor Hoff: I have not done research on critical ages, but I think the evidence is quite clear that earlier is better but that there is no single age such that before that age language acquisition is automatic and after that age it is impossibly difficult.

Decoded Science: Your research on SES and language development shows that the type of speech children hear is important.

Professor Hoff: Yes, quality is important. Children who hear speech that is more informative about the properties of the language learn language faster than children who hear less informative and useful speech. This is true for monolingual development and for bilingual development as well.

Dr. Hoff. Image E Hoff.

Dr. Hoff has extensively studied language development in babies and young children. Image E Hoff.

Quality and Quantity of Speech

The quality and quantity of verbal interaction are important in language acquisition. We asked Professor Hoff for more details.

Decoded Science: Could you explain what you mean by informative speech?

Professor Hoff: Speech is informative when it uses a rich vocabulary and when it illustrates the range of grammatical structures the language permits. Children also benefit from hearing speech in meaningful interaction with responsive adults.

Decoded Science: So parental interaction and the type of speech they use affect the quality and the rate of their children’s language acquisition?

Professor Hoff: Yes, children whose parents are less educated develop language at a slower rate than children whose parents are more educated. A large part of the reason for this relation between SES and language development is that lower SES parents talk less to their children than higher SES parents and when they do they use a smaller vocabulary and tend to issue commands more than engage their children in conversation.

Socioeconomic Differences and Achievement Gaps

How can your economic status result in reduced achievement? Lower-SES families are, in general, not as well educated and therefore have reduced language skills, which they pass on to their children.

Decoded Science: Your recently published work mentions the consequences of SES-related differences in early oral language skill. Can you briefly summarise what these consequences are?

Professor Hoff: Well, from our findings we conclude that SES, and oral language are both related to children’s success in academic achievement. Evidence shows that differences in the language trajectories of children from low-SES contribute to their low levels of academic achievement.

Decoded Science: What can be done to close the achievement gaps?

Professor Hoff: Since evidence shows that a major source of those differences in language trajectories is differences in language experience, there is a definite need for targeted intervention. Efforts should be directed toward developing and implementing interventions that will remedy those deficits in order to help all children achieve their maximum potential.

Achievement Gaps and Language Acquisition

Research shows that the type of language parents use to communicate with their children affects future academic performance. Parents can help their kids develop better language skills by  increasing the quantity of conversations vs. directive statements, and improving the quality of their kids language exposure. Schools can help by implementing targeted interventions for low SES language groups to improve high-quality verbal interactions.


Hoff, E. Interpreting the Early Language Trajectories of Children From Low-SES and Language Minority Homes: Implications for Closing Achievement Gaps. (2013). Developmental Psychology American Psychological Association, Vol. 49, No. 1, 4–14. Accessed April 28, 2013.

Huttenlocher, J., Waterfall, H., Vasilyeva, M., Vevea, J., & Hedges, L. V. Sources of variability in children’s language growth. (2010). Cognitive Psychology, 61, 343–365. Accessed April 28, 2013.

Rowe, M. L., & Goldin-Meadow, S. Differences in early gesture explain SES disparities in child vocabulary size at school entry. (2009). Science, 323, 951–953. Accessed April 28, 2013.

Hoff, E. How social contexts support and shape language development. (2006). Developmental Review, 26, 55-88. Accessed April 28, 2013.

Hoff, E. The Specificity of Environmental Influence: Socioeconomic Status Affects Early Vocabulary Development Via Maternal Speech. (2003). Child Development, Volume 74, Number 5, Pages 1368–1378. Accessed April 28, 2013.

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