Links have long been made between literacy and economic development, and recent governments in the UK have put great emphasis on the teaching of literacy to raise educational standards. There is substantial evidence to show that spoken and written language share some processes in common and that the development of literacy is supported by the development of spoken language. Anecdotal evidence from early years practitioners suggests that many children coming into early years education, particularly those from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, may not have the spoken language skills needed to develop reading and writing. This preliminary study aimed to investigate the extent to which the spoken language skills of children reared in poverty are depressed in comparison with the general population, and in comparison with their general cognitive abilities. Two tests were administered to children in their first term at nursery school to measure their spoken language skills and cognitive abilities: CELF-PUK and BAS II. More than half of the children were found to be language-delayed, although girls' receptive language abilities were significantly better than those of boys. Participants' language skills were also significantly depressed in comparison with their cognitive abilities. Government initiatives to raise awareness of spoken language in the early years are discussed, and implications for the future role of speech and language therapists working in the pre-school sector are considered.