Poorer kids don't lag behind, new study finds

CHILDREN from low-income families are no worse off than their richer counterparts in most areas, such as reading and mathematical ability. The only area where they lag behind is their command of spoken English, a new study has found.

The three-year study, conducted by researchers from the National Institute of Education (NIE) and the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), aims to find out if family income influences the academic and cognitive development of children.

Funded by the Ministry of Social and Family Development, the $100,000 project is one of the first longitudinal studies looking at children as young as four years old.

Its preliminary findings were presented yesterday at a symposium organised by the NIE, with the support of the Ministry of Education and KK Women's and Children's Hospital. The event was organised - for the first time - to share knowledge and research about children's cognitive development.

The study comes just as the Government is placing greater emphasis on helping children from lower-income families level up.

The ongoing study, which started collecting data last year, has so far tracked about 100 pre-schoolers, mostly four- and five-year- olds. A third of the children come from families with household incomes of $3,500 and below.

These children were tested twice last year on simple counting, listening comprehension exercises, identifying letters and words, and recalling sequences of numbers or shapes.

Preliminary findings show that the level of household income affects children's spoken English, suggesting that parents play an important role in imparting oracy skills, said NTU cognitive-developmental psychologist Qu Li, the lead researcher of the study.

Oracy is the ability to express oneself in and understand a spoken language.

"Children from disadvantaged families may lack the abilities to express themselves and understand others because they lack opportunities to practise it at home," she said.

But they are no worse off in areas such as reading, mathematical ability, the ability to switch between tasks, and working memory, which refers to how well they retain and work with information.

The other researchers are Dr Kerry Lee from NIE and Dr Ringo Ho and Ms Tan Bee Li from NTU.

The study backs the views of experts who have highlighted the importance of the socio-economic environment for practising language. Said early childhood expert Khoo Kim Choo: "Exposure to good language will lay the foundation for later schooling years, for example in reading and understanding maths sums."

Children who cannot express themselves well will be at a disadvantage when they cannot participate fully in class, and find it difficult to answer questions verbally, she added.

Currently, 250 pre-schools run the Flair programme that helps those who lag behind in reading and writing. It will be expanded to about 100 more pre-schools over the next two years to cater to more K2 pupils from low-income families, especially those from non-English speaking homes.

The final findings of the study will be made known next year.