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A research review: the importance of families and
the home environment
By Angelica Bonci, 2008, revised June 2010 by Emily Mottram
and Emily McCoy and March 2011 by Jennifer Cole
National Literacy Trust
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
In the last three decades, several strands of research have produced compelling evidence justifying a focus on the family with a particular emphasis on early years in order to raise
literacy standards. The key research findings are:
Families and parents are critical to children’s attainment. Parental involvement • in their child’s literacy practices positively affects children’s academic performance and is a more powerful force for academic success than other family background variables, such as social class, family size and level of parental education.
The home is crucial. Parents have the greatest influence on the achievement of • young people through supporting their learning in the home rather than supporting activities in school.
Early intervention is vital. The earlier parents become involved in their children’s • literacy practices, the more profound the results and the longer-lasting the effects.
Children learn long before they enter formal education.
Parents are a child’s first educator. A child’s family and home environment has a strong impact on his/her language and literacy development and educational achievement. This impact is stronger during the child’s early years but continues throughout their school years.
Many background variables affect the impact of the family and home environment (such as socio-economic status, level of parental education, family size, etc.) but parental attitudes and behaviour, especially parents’ involvement in home learning activities, can be crucial to children’s achievement and can overcome the influences of other factors.
Therefore, any policy aiming to improve literacy standards cannot be limited to formal educational settings, where children spend only a small proportion of their time. On the contrary, it needs to embrace the family as a whole and include parents as partners in their children’s education from the very beginning of their children’s lives. It should aim to raise parents’ awareness of the difference they can make and set up systems that offer constant encouragement and support according to individual requirements and needs.
This paper looks in detail at the range of research underpinning the National Literacy Trust’s work with communities and local areas to embed a strategic approach to literacy.
Copyright © National Literacy Trust (A research review: the importance of families and the home environment, Angelica Bonci) (2008, revised 2010 and March 2011)
THE RESEARCH EVIDENCEThe significance of parental involvement and the home learning environment Parents’ attitudes and support for their children’s learning influence performance on literacy tests irrespective of socio-economic status (Tizard, Blatchford, Burke, Farquhar and Plewis, 1988; Wells, 1987). Parental involvement in their child’s literacy practices positively affects children’s academic performance (Fan and Chen, 2001) and is a more powerful force for academic success than other family background variables, such as social class, family size and level of parental education (Flouri and Buchanan, 2004).
Specifically parental involvement with reading activities at home has significant positive • influences not only on reading achievement, language comprehension and expressive language skills (Gest, Freeman, Domitrovich, and Welsh, 2004), but also on pupils’ interest in reading, attitudes towards reading and attentiveness in the classroom (Rowe, 1991).
Parents make the greatest difference to achievement through supporting their learning • in the home rather than supporting activities in the school (Harris and Goodall, 2007).
Longitudinal studies, provide research evidence confirming that parental involvement in • learning activities in the home is strongly associated with children’s better cognitive achievement, particularly in the early years (such as Sylva, Melhuish, Sammons, SirajBlatchford, and Taggart,1999 and Melhuish, Sylva, Sammons, Siraj-Blatchford, and Taggart, 2001, see also Harris and Goodall, 2007).
Family involvement at school
• Feinstein and Symons (1999) found that parental interest in their child’s education was the single greatest predictor of achievement at age 16.
• In a recent study (Dearing, Kreider, Simpkins and Weiss, 2006) for the Harvard Family Research Project, it was found that family involvement in school matters most for children whose mothers have less education. More specifically, the authors found that increases in family involvement in the school predicted increases in literacy achievement for low income families and that family involvement in school matters most for children at greatest risk.
• More specifically, Dearing and colleagues found that if families who were initially uninvolved in the school became more involved, their children's literacy improved.
Importantly, their results indicated that even one or two additional involvement activities per year were associated with meaningful improvements for children.
Copyright © National Literacy Trust (A research review: the importance of families and the home environment, Angelica Bonci) (2008, revised 2010 and March 2011) Parental education, skills and attitude
There is a link between parents’ and children’s literacy levels1:
• Several recent studies found that parents with low literacy levels:
are less likely to help their children with reading and writing (Williams, Clemens, Oleinikova, and Tarvin, 2003; Parsons and Bynner, 2007);
feel less confident in doing so (Williams et al., 2003);
are less likely to have children who read for pleasure (Parsons and Bynner, 2007);
are more likely to have children with lower cognitive and language development levels (De Coulon, Meschi and Vignoles, 2008).2NB these links have been challenged – see footnote.
• The context provided by parents and their consistent support might be more important than any transfer of skills [for their children’s literacy development] (Auerbach, 1989, p.
Parental education level has an impact on young children’s cognitive and language
• Parents’ level of education correlates with the cognitive development of babies between 12 months and 27 months of age (Roberts, Bornstein, Slater and Barrett, 1999).
• Data obtained from a study of 16,000 three-year-old children, who were assessed within the framework of the British Millennium Cohort Study (George, Hansen and Schoon, 2007), indicated that children with the most educated parents (who had degree-level or above qualifications) were on average about 12-13 months ahead of those with the least educated parents (who had no qualifications)3.
Parental attitudes and aspirations play a central role in children’s language and literacy
• Parental aspirations and expectations on their children’s achievements have a strong impact on children’s school results (Fan and Chen, 2001; Desforges and Abouchaar, 2003).
• There is ample evidence that parents who promote the view that reading is a valuable and worthwhile activity have children who are motivated to read for pleasure (Baker and Scher, 2002).
Hannon (1999) does not exclude the possibility that other studies might succeed in identifying children with low literacy achievement on the basis of family characteristics. What he contests are the following key points: (a) the tendency to believe that a significant correlation implies an acceptable method of identification; (b) the use of reported literacy difficulties to measure parents’ literacy levels, as very few parents tend to report having reading difficulties - in the ALSBU study only 107 children (out of a total of 2,617) had parents who admitted having reading difficulties; (c) the fact that, in the ALSBU study, data was misleadingly presented in a way likely to persuade that parental literacy difficulties accounted for much of children’s poor literacy achievement. The interpretation of the ALSBU findings (1993) as evidence of intergenerational transfer of literacy skills, especially in relation to low levels of literacy, was challenged by Hannon (1999) through his key reinterpretation of the data. Hannon pointed out that in the ALSBU study the causal relationship between parents’ and children’s low literacy levels had been assumed and could not be deducted from the evidence collected1.
The study by De Coulon et al. (2003) was based on data from the British Cohort Survey. It found a positive and significant relationship between parents’ literacy skills and their children’s cognitive development, measured in terms of test results on the British Ability Scale Second Edition (which includes “naming vocabulary” for children aged 3-6; “word reading scale” and “spelling” for children aged 7-11).
Such a positive relationship is more significant for parents with low literacy levels (below entry level 2). Quantile regressions on the data showed that the intergenerational transfer of basic skills is stronger for children with low levels of skills.
Children’s cognitive skills were measured using the Naming Vocabulary Subset of the British Ability Scales and the School Readiness Composite of the Revised Bracken Basic Concept Scale. The British Ability Scales is part of a set of cognitive assessments designed to gauge children’s expressive language skills. The child is asked to name a series of pictures of everyday items. The school readiness composite measures children’s readiness for formal education in terms of their knowledge of colours, letters, numbers, sizes, comparisons and shapes. The children are required to point as prompted by the interviewer (George et al., 2007).
Copyright © National Literacy Trust (A research review: the importance of families and the home environment, Angelica Bonci) (2008, revised 2010 and March 2011) The significance of parental involvement in their child’s earliest years Research shows that the earlier parents become involved in their children’s literacy • practices, the more profound the results and the longer-lasting the effects (Mullis, Mullis, Cornille et al., 2004).
It is now accepted that the link between disadvantage and achievement is • cumulative: when poorer children enter primary school, despite early indications of potential, they tend to fall behind (Feinstein, 2003, 2004). Consequently, the chances of breaking cycles of poverty and deprivation are considerably reduced as children get older (DfES, 2004).
What is effective parental involvement?
• The Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) study found that what parents and carers do with their young children makes a real difference to the children’s development and is more important than who parents are (i.e. than their socio-economic status or educational level). There are a range of activities that parents undertake with pre-school children which have a positive effect on their development in that they engage and stretch the child’s mind. For example, reading with the child, teaching songs and nursery rhymes, painting and drawing, playing with letters and numbers, visiting the library, teaching the alphabet and numbers, taking children on visits and creating regular opportunities for them to play with their friends at home, were all associated with higher intellectual and social/behavioural scores. These activities could also be viewed as ‘protective’ factors in reducing the incidence of special educational needs because children whose parents engaged regularly in home learning activities were less likely to be at risk for special educational needs (Sylva et al., 2004).
Types of parental involvement (Clark, 2007)
• It should come as no surprise that parent and community involvement that is linked to student learning has a greater effect on achievement than more general forms of involvement (Henderson and Mapp, 2002).