For the past couple of years, face masks have become an essential accessory in our lives and we have spent most of our time at home isolating ourselves from others. As adults, this is a relatively short period of our lives; but for young children who have been born in the last few years, this is all they know. These are some of the most crucial years in a child’s overall development.
This leads us to wonder: Has the pandemic impacted the speech and language development of young children?
As a practicing speech language pathologist, this is a question myself and my colleagues have been asking ourselves recently.
There are a few early studies investigating the language, behavior, and overall development of children born shortly before or during the pandemic. However, since the coronavirus pandemic is such a recent event, we will not know its true effects on children for a while.
It is important to keep in mind that any upcoming studies will be highly dependent on the region included in the study since different parts of the country and world had different pandemic protocols.
In today’s post we are going to consider what some of the restrictions and guidelines of the pandemic may have meant for children in the U.S., and around the world.
Let’s take a look at some of the research that is available, including surveys and anecdotal insight from parents and teachers.
The Word on Words: Vocabulary Development
We know that literacy contributes to the language and vocabulary development of children. In addition, participating in a variety of activities and community events increases children’s exposure to new vocabulary. Animals, names of family relations (e.g., grandma, uncle, cousin), and community figures are learned when children go to the farm or zoo, visit relatives, and see police cars. Because of the lockdown protocol, these experiences have been significantly reduced.
For more on how literacy has changed over the years, head over to the first and second articles in a series on literacy rates in the United States. Don’t forget to subscribe to the One-Room Education blog to be notified of upcoming articles in the series.
A comprehensive study was recently conducted by an international team of more than 50 language acquisition researchers to look at the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on early language acquisition. Language acquisition researchers study the interaction between children and their environment in how they acquire language, including the development of receptive and expressive language skills, grammar, social skills, and the interplay between language acquisition and cognitive development. This study specifically examined how lockdown protocols impacted the vocabulary development of infants and toddlers.
In particular, this study investigated the change in the learning environment of children due to the closing of child care centers. This increased the time that children spent with caregivers at home, and decreased their access to external sources, including peers and adults. This allowed the researchers to evaluate the association between caregiver-child interactions and children’s language development.
Researchers found that the level of parental education did not have a major effect on children’s vocabulary acquisition. The main factor was how the parents interacted with their children. Children who were read to by their parents and had limited screen time were more likely to experience significant vocabulary improvements during the lockdown than the children whose parents did not.
The results suggest, that in our sample, caregiver education, children’s age or sex were not associated with children’s receptive and expressive vocabulary development as much as some of the activities that caregivers reported undertaking with their children.Kartushina et al
For more about the importance of parents in their children’s education, check out this episode of The State of Education Podcast.
The lockdown procedures and resulting social isolation limited the size of children’s environments. When the world became smaller, parents became one of the only sources of interaction. Depending on the level of additional responsibilities, caregivers may not have been able to engage with their children at the level they wanted to because of the disruption to normal routines.
Apart from the shutdowns and social distancing, other pandemic protocols can come into play when considering language development in young children.
Do Masks Mask Communication?
A major part of oral communication is being able to read lips. This is something that most of us didn’t even realize we did…until we were no longer able to. Wearing masks showed us how challenging communicating can be when that visual clue is taken away.
Wearing masks also reduces the intelligibility of what is said. This has implications for phonological and phonemic awareness. Phonological awareness is the ability to analyze and manipulate the sound structure of language. This is a key component of phonological processing, which contributes to later developing reading, writing, and spelling skills.
With the lack of visual cues and reduced speech clarity that comes with mask wearing, children in the height of developing their phonological skills can struggle to differentiate between similar sounds, such as “b” and “d.”
The reduced volume and diction, along with inability to read lips can make communication difficult for adults, but even more so for young children in the early stages of language development.
The Education Endowment Fund conducted a survey of schools and parents in the United Kingdom to look at the development of children in the early school years. They found that children who started school in the fall of 2020 required a higher level of support than in past years.
The main skill area needing support? Communication and language development. Out of the schools surveyed, 96% said they were either “very concerned” or “quite concerned.” The next two areas of concern are closely related to language skills: 91% of schools reported concerns in personal, social, and emotional development, and 89% reported concerns in literacy skills.
What About Social Skills?
With all of the isolation, it makes sense to wonder about how the past couple of years will impact children’s social development. Many adults have experienced some levels of awkwardness as we have begun gathering with others again. As adults, we will likely bounce back quickly. But what does this mean for children, who are still learning how to interact with others?
Communication Without Words…Or Nonverbal Cues
An important area of language and communication is pragmatic language. Pragmatic language refers to social communication, which is the way language is used to communicate with others.
This includes both verbal and nonverbal communication, such as eye contact, body language, and facial expressions. All of these assist listeners in understanding and attaching meaning to what is said. Successfully participating in conversation, making inferences, and understanding nonliteral language and sarcasm are just a few skills for which age appropriate pragmatic language skills are crucial.
Wearing masks hides facial expressions. Without these nonverbal cues to aid listeners, receptive language (understanding what is said) is negatively impacted. This can not only lead to confusion, it can impede communication between children and their peers, teachers, and adults. Beyond that, it may hinder the development of social and emotional skills in young children.
However, some propose that children have been more expressive with their body language and eyes when wearing masks. Have children adapted by upping their nonverbal communication?
Actions Are Speaking Louder Than Words
There have been multiple changes that may affect children’s social skills: school closings, schedule changes, increased screen time, or the overall stress and upheaval of the past couple of years.
Now that young children have been returning to school, teachers have noticed some disruptive behaviors including the following: students picking on peers to gain teacher attention, tantrums when students don’t get their way, and students taking things away from peers.
Is this because these children did not observe or participate in normal social experiences that would have left them better prepared to handle these situations?
In addition, because of social distancing protocols, students have often been divided into smaller cohorts, and remain with those same students at all times. In the past, students had the opportunity to work with a variety of peers. Now, teachers have noticed that students don’t know how to interact with different people and personalities. With limited opportunity for problem solving, minor disagreements quickly intensify into large arguments. Even if children know the appropriate way to respond and interact, they have had limited opportunity to practice those recently.
One of the remaining questions we are left wondering is whether any noted delays in speech or language skills will improve on their own. Will these children catch up to their peers? Will they need help from a professional? This is where we see the need for longitudinal studies in the coming years. We at One-Room Education will stay on top of this concern as it continues to develop in order to help keep parents and educators informed.
Join the discussion! What have you noticed in your children or students?
Have you seen a difference in children in the birth to preschool age group compared to your older children or classes you taught in previous years? If so, what seems to be their biggest struggle? As our world has begun opening up again, have you noticed improvements?
Be sure to subscribe to the blog to stay up to date on all the latest One-Room content. In the meantime, head to this blog post that discusses the impact of the pandemic on teachers, and what it may look like as we return to normal.
- Campbell, Leah. “Impact of Covid-19 on Children’s Social Skills.” Forbes, 31 October 2021. https://www.forbes.com/sites/leahcampbell/2021/10/31/impact-of-covid-19-on-childrens-social-skills/?sh=4d9bcdc62a54
- “Fact Check – Social Media Claims that Masks Delay Children’s Speech Development are Missing Context.” Reuters Fact Check, 26 January 2022. https://www.reuters.com/article/factcheck-masks-child-speech-development-idUSL1N2U62CO
- Kartushina, Natalia, et al. “COVID-19 First Lockdown as a Window into Language Acquisition: Associations Between Caregiver-Child Activities and Vocabulary Gains.” PsyArXiv, 5 March 2021. https://doi.org/10.34842/abym-xv34
- “Phonological Processing.” ASHA. Accessed on 21 June 2022. https://www.asha.org/Practice-Portal/Clinical-Topics/Written-Language-Disorders/Phonological-Processing/
- Tracey, Louise, et al. “The Impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic on Children’s Socio-Emotional Wellbeing and Attainment During the Reception Year.” Education Endowment Foundation, 17 May 2022. https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/projects-and-evaluation/projects/the-impact-of-the-covid-19-pandemic-on-childrens-socioemotional-well-being-and-attainment-during-the-reception-year
- Warner, Andrew. “Early Language Acquisition in COVID Lockdowns.” Language Magazine, 26 April 2021. https://www.languagemagazine.com/2021/04/26/early-language-acquisition-in-covid-lockdowns/
- Wren, Yvonne. “How Lockdown Has Affected Children’s Speech – And What Parents Can Do to Help.? The Conversation, 19 May 2021. https://theconversation.com/how-lockdown-has-affected-childrens-speech-and-what-parents-can-do-to-help-160886
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