The developmental origins of genetic factors influencing language and literacy: Associations with early-childhood vocabulary

Ellen Verhoef, Chin Yang Shapland, Simon E Fisher, Philip S Dale, Beate St Pourcain

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BACKGROUND: The heritability of language and literacy skills increases from early-childhood to adolescence. The underlying mechanisms are little understood and may involve (a) the amplification of genetic influences contributing to early language abilities, and/or (b) the emergence of novel genetic factors (innovation). Here, we investigate the developmental origins of genetic factors influencing mid-childhood/early-adolescent language and literacy. We evaluate evidence for the amplification of early-childhood genetic factors for vocabulary, in addition to genetic innovation processes.

METHODS: Expressive and receptive vocabulary scores at 38 months, thirteen language- and literacy-related abilities and nonverbal cognition (7-13 years) were assessed in unrelated children from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC, Nindividuals ≤ 6,092). We investigated the multivariate genetic architecture underlying early-childhood expressive and receptive vocabulary, and each of 14 mid-childhood/early-adolescent language, literacy or cognitive skills with trivariate structural equation (Cholesky) models as captured by genome-wide genetic relationship matrices. The individual path coefficients of the resulting structural models were finally meta-analysed to evaluate evidence for overarching patterns.

RESULTS: We observed little support for the emergence of novel genetic sources for language, literacy or cognitive abilities during mid-childhood or early adolescence. Instead, genetic factors of early-childhood vocabulary, especially those unique to receptive skills, were amplified and represented the majority of genetic variance underlying many of these later complex skills (≤99%). The most predictive early genetic factor accounted for 29.4%(SE = 12.9%) to 45.1%(SE = 7.6%) of the phenotypic variation in verbal intelligence and literacy skills, but also for 25.7%(SE = 6.4%) in performance intelligence, while explaining only a fraction of the phenotypic variation in receptive vocabulary (3.9%(SE = 1.8%)).

CONCLUSIONS: Genetic factors contributing to many complex skills during mid-childhood and early adolescence, including literacy, verbal cognition and nonverbal cognition, originate developmentally in early-childhood and are captured by receptive vocabulary. This suggests developmental genetic stability and overarching aetiological mechanisms.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry
Publication statusPublished - 14 Sep 2020


  • behavioural genetics
  • language and literacy development


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