Ear infections and language development: Research Rumination

Raise your hand if you had ear infections when you were little! How many of you had tubes in your ears when you were a kid (or, in the case of one of my recent co-workers, AN ADULT)? Ear infections, or otitis media (OM), are super common. 5 out of 6 kids get one by the time they’re 3. Sometimes, kiddos get them a lot. Like…a lot, a lot.

What is the impact of recurrent ear infections on language development? Well, we’ve got a Research Rumination coming in hot from Australia this week that’s going to tell us all about this. Winskel (2006) wanted to investigate specific language skills and how early, recurrent OM impacted these skills later in childhood in this study. Let’s go!

Participants: Two groups of 43 1st and 2nd graders. One group had a history of at least 4 bouts of ear infections (OM) or tubes placed before age 3. The other group had no history of OM. None of the children had current hearing loss, none were cognitively impaired, and none were sick. Most of the participants came from middle SES homes.

What’d they do?: The two groups of children were administered a series of tests measuring their phonological awareness, semantic (vocabulary) knowledge, ability to retell a story, ability to retell a story from a past event, and their overall reading ability.

Results: On the measures of alliteration, rhyming, non-word reading, expressive vocabulary, word definitions, reading fluency, and reading comprehension, the group without a history of OM scored significantly higher. Most notable was the difference in performance on the reading fluency and reading comprehension tasks. No other statistically significant differences were observed between the OM and non-OM groups including narrative skills.

What does this mean?: As Winskel says, “this study confirms the notion that early recurrent OM may have long-term effects on language and literacy skill development of children from 6 to 8 years of age.” Recurrent ear infections can impact language, long past the early years. Skills that influence reading such as phonological awareness (alliteration, rhyming, non-word reading) and vocabulary were significantly lower in the OM group, thus impacting their reading scores. While it’s not possible in any study to say that one thing CAUSES another, there certainly is a strong correlation between a child’s language and reading skills and their history of ear infections.

Your friendly neighborhood SLP is always here to help, though unfortunately doesn’t have a medical degree. Therefore, if your kiddo has a lot of ear infections, be vigilant about their care. Know the signs of an ear infection, and don’t be afraid to call your pediatrician. It’s good to have open and honest conversations with your child’s pediatrician about your concerns and to advocate, advocate, advocate! For some more info, check out the CDC’s guide on ear infection treatment and prevention.

Winskel, H. (2006). The effects of an early history of otitis media on children’s language and literacy skill development. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 76(4), 727-744. Chicago

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