A new study published in the Journal of Child Language looked at the language skills of more than 6000 New Zealand two-year-olds and found some concerning gaps.

The work, which is part of the Growing Up in New Zealand longitudinal study, focuses on the children’s New Zealand English and te reo Māori speaking.

Professor Elaine Reese of Otago University’s Department of Psychology, the lead author of the article, says some of the findings are worrying.

“Language skills is the bedrock of children’s reading and writing once they enter primary school, so these gaps are very concerning.”

At age two, 87 per cent of the children are combining words into simple sentences in at least one language, like saying “car toot” “dog go woof” which is an important marker of their language development.

Yet there are large gaps between girls and boys, and between rich and poor children, according to the study.

New Zealand girls’ vocabularies are eight per cent larger than boys’, and children growing up in poorer neighbourhoods in New Zealand use 12 per cent fewer words than children growing up in more affluent neighbourhoods.

“While I am concerned about the findings I am not surprised as the trends are reflective of trends worldwide.  In the US the gap between rich and poorer children, is known as the 30 million word gap. Children from low income households, by the time they go to school, have heard 30 million fewer words than a child from a middle class family so that is a huge gap and it portends differences in how those children do in school,” Reese said.

There are a number of reasons for why children in lower income families have fewer words, Reese explains.

“Often it is because families are not as highly educated; or that those homes do not realise the importance of talking to their children. Also it is because some of those households are dealing with higher levels of stress. If you’re worrying about how to pay for the next meal or that you’ve run out of petrol it’s hard to then focus on talking to your children.”

Why do we talk less to boys than to girls?

“We’re still looking into reasons why we have fewer conversations with boys. One of the clues to this is we’ve asked the mothers in their study in a picture book reading task and what we’ve found is that the mothers of these sons were disciplining boys more often, not physical discipline, but at keeping them on task. So the key to dealing with children, both active boys and active girls, is to make the reading more interesting so they don’t get so bored. Sometimes, we have longer and richer conversations with girls because they are sitting still.”

Raising and teaching toddlers IS tiring work, but Reese says the more words a toddler has the better their lives are both now and in the future, Reese said.

“Language is important at the time in every day communicating with toddlers. Studies show that children with better language skills are less frustrated as they are better able to express themselves and will have fewer learning difficulties in the future.”

And there is hope, Reese said.

“There are many ways we can improve these statistics. As early childhood educators and as parents and whānau we can improve the quantity and the quality of our speech with toddlers.

“So with toddlers, the really important thing to do is to have everyday conversations – to zero in on what they’re interested in, not changing the topic to something you’re interested in. So they’re learning the sounds of language and learning how to take turns even before they can utter any words.”

It is also important to remember that it is not simply a case of children being in a house or childcare with a lot of talking around them, she said.

“Rather than the back and forth between parents or teachers, it really is about the communication between the adult and the child.”


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