Family literacy project improves kindergartners’ language skills

In a year long study, 248 kindergarten students and their parents participated in an experimental program, Early Access to Success in Education (Project EASE). This program was designed to give parents information about their children’s literacy development and to raise the quality of verbal interactions between parents and children.

The project teaches parents story retelling skills and techniques for strengthening their child’s vocabulary and increasing letter recognition and sound awareness.

Children whose families engaged in the project’s activities made significantly greater gains in language scores during kindergarten.

The greatest gains were found in the initially lowest-achieving students when parents provided strong literacy support. The parents in the program showed high levels of participation and satisfaction.

Researchers Gail E. Jordan, Bethel College, St. Paul, Minnesota, and Catherine E. Snow and Michelle V. Porche, Harvard University Graduate School of
Education, report that Project EASE demonstrates the potential for schools to engage parents in supporting their children’s literacy development, and the impact that such a program can have on children’s language skills.

Previous research has demonstrated that the time spent reading outside of school and the quality of conversation with adults have a significant positive impact on children’s reading achievement.

Study Population

Families in four schools in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, participated in the study. The experimental group was made up of 177 kindergarten students in eight
classes. Seventy-one non-participating students in three classes acted as a comparison group.

The population was overwhelmingly white and middle class. Minorities made up less than five percent, and poverty rates in the study schools ranged from 18 percent to 21 percent. The White Bear Lake schools have a history of good student achievement, but the experimental schools had the largest proportion of students scoring in the lowest quartile on the fourth-grade results of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.

Kindergartens averaged 25 students per half-day session. Educators in this school district considered it important to help families strengthen their children’s literacy skills at the onset of school, because this would be the first group of students to take the new high-stakes tests being implemented by the district.

Project EASE

The program consists of monthly parent training sessions involving parent coaching and structured parent-child activities that enhance children’s language development.  Parents are told the theoretical basis for why these activities will help their children succeed in school.  Literacy activities are modeled and parents have opportunities to practice them with their child.

The activities are carefully scripted and all information is provided in an at-home guide as well. Parent sessions are offered during the day and in the evening. Parents generally average 80 percent attendance at the training sessions. One training session on words, for example, guides parents in ways to support and enrich their child’s vocabulary. They are given information about the role vocabulary plays in later reading development.

Parents are encouraged to engage children in extended conversations at mealtimes, to support vocabulary growth by
wide reading, and to discuss experiences not shared by all family members — things that occurred at other times and places. Parents learn how to help their children label, define, describe and relate words and their attributes.

Some activities involve having children recall words in response to clues given by parents, and having children describe mystery objects pictured on cards for
the parents to guess. These activities have proved highly engaging for both parents and children. Other training sessions involve telling personal narratives, discussing information-rich books, and learning about letters and sounds.

Test Results

Children’s language and emergent literacy skills were tested before and after the intervention, in September and May of their kindergarten year. All children in the experimental and comparison classes were given the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test and the Comprehensive Assessment Program, which included measures of story comprehension, story sequencing, upper- and lower-case letter recognition, sound awareness for both the beginning and ending of words, concepts of print, environmental print and invented spelling.  Parents completed surveys reporting their home literacy environments, including how often they read to their children and took them to the library and how much time their children spent viewing educational television.

Across all schools 85 percent of families participated in the at-school activities and training sessions. Parents completed, on average, 80 percent of the 15 scripted at-home activities.

On the pretest, groups were closely matched on their language and literacy skills. Posttest results revealed that all students made statistically significant improvements over the year of the study. But those students who participated in Project EASE made significantly greater gains than the comparison groups on the vocabulary, story comprehension, story sequence, sound awareness, and concept of print portions of the tests.

Children who scored lowest on the pretest showed the greatest gains at posttest, and those gains were greater for children in the experimental group and for
children whose families provided richer home literacy environments.

By the end of the year, Project EASE participants who started out low in language skills were doing as well as their comparison-group peers who had started out high in language skills. Children whose parents participated more fully in the program also tended to have higher levels on home literacy measures.

Statistically significant impact on language scores

Project Ease had a statistically significant impact on children’s language scores. This intervention had a particularly powerful impact on the children who scored low at the pretest. Presumably children who scored high at the pretest were already engaged in the kinds of activities promoted by the intervention.

This project demonstrated that even in a moderate-to-low risk population of English-speaking middle-class families with access to good schools, there is room for parental involvement to improve children’s school performance. These researchers point out, however, that Project EASE requires considerable resources for materials and training and to coordinate the follow-up activities.

The enthusiastic response of this low-risk population does not ensure the program’s feasibility with other groups. Transportation or communication problems may inhibit its use with higher risk families. EASE has, however, been replicated in different settings. For example, a consortium of rural districts implemented the program with 85 percent participation.

These results are limited by the fact that the only available test results were obtained immediately after the intervention. It would be desirable to know if the benefits of Project EASE are long lasting — if participating students’ reading scores are better years later.

However, because vocabulary, story comprehension, and story sequencing are the skills that relate most strongly to literacy achievements, improvement on these measures strongly indicates that improved reading outcomes will result. Jordan et al. conclude that this program demonstrated that parents welcome participation in promoting their children’s school success and are happy to receive training in how to do so effectively, and that parental efforts do result in children’s improved language skills.

“Project EASE: The Effect of a Family Literacy Project on Kindergarten Students’ Early Literacy Skills” Reading Research Quarterly Volume 35, Number 4, December 2000 Pp. 524-542.

Published in ERN November 1999 Volume 12 Number 8

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