Existing evidence suggests that early individual differences in literacy skills are established by first grade and remain relatively stable in the following years. Because early experiences appear to be so important for later reading skills, researchers Monique Senechal and Jo-Anne LeFevre, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada, were interested in finding out how children acquire these early literacy skills.
They speculated that these skills were acquired both at home and in kindergarten. They specifically sought to determine how parental involvement is related to the development of reading skills.
Previous studies have shown that including parents in children’s academic development can critically enhance their performance and predict both the vocabulary development and reading growth of children in the primary grades.
Home literacy experiences
These researchers studied the informal and formal literacy experiences of 168 middle- and upper-middle-income children at home. Formal literacy activities are those in which parents try to teach children to read or write. Examples include working with an alphabet book or teaching them to write their name.
Informal literacy refers to activities such as reciting nursery rhymes and reading storybooks aloud. One previous study revealed that children whose parents believed in the importance of more structured literacy experiences tended to have stronger emergent literacy skills than children whose parents believed in providing less structured experiences such as simply reading aloud.
In the current study, the middle- and upper middle-class English-speaking parents reported lots of home literacy experiences. On average, these parents began reading to their children when they were 9 months old. These homes had between 60 and 80 children’s books and some children were also taken to the library.
Because reading was a highly valued activity in these homes, Senechal and LeFevre wanted to assess children’s exposure to formal and informal literacy experiences in other ways than simply asking parents how often they engaged in such activities. Therefore, they created lists of children’s book titles and children’s authors and asked parents to indicate titles and authors they recognized.
Formal and informal activities
This checklist consisted of 40 titles available in local libraries and bookstores and an additional 20 names invented by the researchers. Researchers discouraged parents from guessing if they were unsure they recognized a name. This kind of checklist has been shown in previous studies to be a valid and reliable measure of exposure to books.
The list was used to measure the informal literacy experiences of children. Parents who frequently read to their children did not necessarily report teaching them to read and print words. Few researchers have examined the possibility that informal and formal literacy experiences might have different relations to the develop-ment of children’s literacy.
These researchers, however, sought to determine the relative importance of these two distinct parent-child activities — storybook reading and parents’ reports of teaching — to the development of children’s receptive language, emergent literacy, skill acquisition and fluent reading.
In the current study, two groups of kindergartners and one group of first graders were assessed and studied through third grade. Children’s receptive language and emergent literacy were assessed at the beginning of first grade, and reading skills were assessed at the end of first and third grade.
All three schools in the study shared a common mandate emphasizing self-directed learning, integrated curricula and parent and community involvement. These schools used multi-age groups and many of the children in the study had the same teacher in first, second and third grade. Reading instruction began in first grade with a balanced literacy approach in which phonics teaching was included within the context of reading and writing activities.
At the beginning of first grade, children’s vocabulary was tested with the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test-Revised. Listening comprehension and phonological awareness were assessed with subtests from the Stanford Early School Achievement Tests. I
n addition, researchers measured children’s concepts about print, alphabet knowledge, and decoding of simple consonant-vowel-consonant words. Children were asked to spell words or as many sounds in the words as possible. At the end of first and third grades, word reading and reading comprehension subtests were administered.
Limits of storybook reading
Different types of early literacy experiences are related to different outcomes: Storybook exposure predicted receptive language and parents’ reports of teaching predicted emergent literacy skills. Neither storybook reading nor parents’ reports of direct teaching predicted a significant variance in phonological awareness.
Results showed that reading storybooks during the preschool years will enhance children’s vocabulary and listening comprehension, and that in time, these receptive language skills will facilitate fluent reading. This influence remains after controlling for parent education and differences in phonological awareness.
However, storybook reading by itself is insufficient to foster specific emergent literacy skills such as alphabet knowledge or early decoding. These skills appear to require specific teaching.
These findings are important in light of the relative stability of these early individual differences once children begin formal instruction in reading. In this study, early home literacy experiences were indirectly related to later reading performance — children’s exposure to books at home played an impor- tant indirect role in the development of reading skills.
Shared book reading supported children’s receptive language development which, in turn, shows a strong link to reading performance once the mechanics of reading were learned in the early grades. Continued exposure to books in school also made a significant contribution to children’s reading performance in third grade.
In contrast to storybook reading, parents’ reports of teaching appear to have a more limited influence on learning to read. Parent involvement in teaching provided some foundation for early literacy skills. But early literacy skills were a better predictor of success in the learning the mechanics of reading than of fluent reading later on.
Middle-class children’s vocabularies are usually adequate for learning to decode simple words, and thus are not believed to be a source of variability in early reading skill.
In conclusion, vocabulary and listening comprehension are predicted by storybook reading at home. Teachers should continue to recommend that parents read to their children before and after they begin to read in school, because early progress in developing receptive language has a long-term effect on acquiring reading vocabulary and comprehension.
However, Senechal and LeFevre found no long-term effect on reading skills in children whose parents reported they taught them to read and write letters and words. These researchers warn that it is not known whether these results would hold true for lower-income or more diverse populations. They believe, however, that this study does reveal the importance of early storybook reading for the development of fluent reading.
“Parental Involvement in the Development of Children’s Reading Skill: A Five-Year Longitudinal Study” Child Development Volume 73, Number 2, April 2002 Pp. 445-460.
Published in ERN May/June 2002 Volume 15 Number 5