Reply to Dr Sinead Rhodes’ commentary

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Reply to S Rhodes’ commentary: co-occurrences between motor skills, executive function and language skills from early in development, a commentary on Gooch et al. (2014)

Debbie Gooch; School of Psychology, University of Surrey, Maggie Snowling; Department of Psychology, University of Oxford, and  Charles Hulme; Department of Education, University of Oxford

As highlighted in Rhodes’ commentary, understanding why neurodevelopmental disorders (e.g. DLD, DCD and ADHD) frequently co-occur is important both theoretically and practically and determining what causes the variability in children’s outcomes can help us to develop interventions to promote educational attainment.

Our study explored the relationships between early language, motor and executive function skills in children selected to be at risk of later literacy difficulties and typically developing controls. A key take home message from our paper is that children with preschool language impairment (i.e. DLD) display multiple deficits which are stable across time. As we highlight in this paper and others (e.g. Thompson et al., 2015), children’s language skills are a key predictor of future literacy outcomes.

In Gooch et al. (2014) and Thompson et al. (2015) we found a relationship between children’s early fine motor skills (posting coins, threading beads & drawing around a trail) and their later literacy attainment. As Rhodes’ points out our study does not explore the mechanisms underpinning this association. There are two equally plausible explanations for why variables (in this case motor skills and literacy skills) are related: 1) there is a causal connection (motor skills -> literacy), or 2) there is no direct association between the two variables – the correlation reflects some other (unspecified) factor (differences in attention for example) that affects both measures. Given the lack of evidence (or a clear theoretical basis) to suggest that fine motor skills cause language difficulties or vice versa, we subscribe to the view that the relationship is most likely because ‘factors which place an individual at risk for language difficulties also influence the development of attention, behavioural control and motor skills (e.g. Bishop, 2002)’. That is, the relationship depends on some common factor related to both skills.  Nevertheless, the fact that both children with poor language skills (Conti‐Ramsden et al., 2018) and poor motor skills (Harrowell et al., 2018) in the early school years are often reported to have worse educational outcomes in later childhood/adolescence suggests that there is a real need for further research to establish the mechanisms underpinning these associations.

It is well established, through intervention studies, that language has a causal influence on the development of both reading accuracy and comprehensions (e.g. Bowyer-Crane et al. 2008; Clarke et al., 2010; Fricke et al. 2013). Interventions to improve early language skills are also valuable since language skills provide the foundation for much of formal educational and social development. There is also every reason to help children with early motor-coordination problems and as Rhodes’ emphasised, further understanding the mechanisms which underpin the association between early motor co-ordination difficulties and later educational underachievement would help to inform the development of useful interventions in this regard.


Bowyer-Crane, C., Snowling, M. J., Duff, F. J., Fieldsend, E., Carroll, J. M., Miles, J., … Hulme, C. (2008). Improving early language and literacy skills: differential effects of an oral language versus a phonology with reading intervention. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 49(4), 422–432.

Clarke, P. J., Snowling, M. J., Truelove, E., & Hulme, C. (2010). Ameliorating children’s reading-comprehension difficulties: a randomized controlled trial. Psychological Science, 21(8), 1106–1116.

Conti‐Ramsden, G., Durkin, K., Toseeb, U., Botting, N., & Pickles, A. (2018). Education and employment outcomes of young adults with a history of developmental language disorder. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 53(2), 237–255.

Fricke, S., Bowyer-Crane, C., Haley, A. J., Hulme, C., & Snowling, M. J. (2013). Efficacy of language intervention in the early years: Oral language intervention. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 54(3), 280–290.

Gooch, D., Hulme, C., Nash, H. M., & Snowling, M. J. (2014). Comorbidities in preschool children at family risk of dyslexia. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 55(3), 237-246.

Harrowell, I., Hollén, L., Lingam, R., & Emond, A. (2018). The impact of developmental coordination disorder on educational achievement in secondary school. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 72, 13–22.


Dr Debbie Gooch
Dr Debbie Gooch

Lecturer in Developmental Psychology, Final Year Tutor, School of Psychology, University of Surrey


Professor Chris Hulme
Professor Chris Hulme

Professor of Psychology and Education in the Department of Education, Brasenose College, Oxford University


Professor Maggie Snowling
Professor Maggie Snowling

The President, St John’s College, University of Oxford

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