White children are losing their early lead over ethnic minority youngsters in English language during the first two years of primary school, a UK-wide study has found.
By age 7, ethnic minority children read English at least as well as white pupils, say researchers at the Institute of Education, University of London.
The best readers, on average, are Indian children who are significantly ahead of white pupils by the second year of primary school even though they had a poorer vocabulary at age 5.
These findings have emerged from the Millennium Cohort Study, which is tracking the development of children born between 2000 and 2002. As part of its latest survey, more than 13,500 children were shown words on cards and asked to read them out. This assessment showed that Indian pupils were 7 per cent ahead of white children in reading at age 7. It also revealed that Pakistani and Bangladeshi children, who had the lowest vocabulary scores at age 5, had caught up with their white classmates, as had black and mixed-race children.
“These are remarkable findings,” say the researchers who analysed the results, Professor Ingrid Schoon and Dr Elizabeth Jones. “At the age 5 survey white children scored the highest in the naming vocabulary assessment and the other ethnic groups were significantly behind.”
The survey, which was conducted in 2008/9, also found that only 56 per cent of white children said they enjoyed reading “a lot”. Pakistani and Bangladeshi pupils were the keenest readers (68% liking it a lot), followed by black (62%) and Indian (59%) children.
However, Professor Schoon and Dr Jones say it is difficult to determine why ethnic minority children have caught up with their white classmates. “It could be due to actual changes in verbal ability, perhaps due to experience of schooling, or to the two assessments measuring different skills, or differences in parental support for reading, or all of these.”
White children did, however, outscore ethnic minority youngsters in a second test of non-verbal reasoning and spatial visualisation which required them to construct patterns using flat squares or solid cubes. Pakistani and Bangladeshi youngsters did least well in this assessment, at age 5 and age 7.
Pakistani, Bangladeshi and black children in the Millennium cohort also did less well than other ethnic groups in a maths assessment covering numbers, shape, space, measures and data handling. Children from these family backgrounds consequently had a slightly lower overall ability score than other ethnic groups. However, the researchers point out that the gaps between ethnic groups were smaller than at age 5.
Girls scored higher than boys in both the word reading and pattern construction assessments at age 7 but the gender difference in maths scores was insignificant.
The study also showed that seven-year-olds living with parents who are well-educated, have a professional job, or are living above the poverty line, did significantly better in all the cognitive assessments than children from less advantaged backgrounds. The same pattern was identified in previous MCS surveys.
The findings appear in a report published today by the Institute of Education’s Centre for Longitudinal Studies: Millennium Cohort Study, Fourth Survey: A User’s Guide to Initial Findings. Copies of the report can be downloaded from www.cls.ioe.ac.uk/MCSFindings (from 10am on Friday, October 15).
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