Our scientific understanding is always evolving, changing. Thus, one of the ongoing puzzles in education research is how confident one must be in a set of findings before one concludes it ought to be the basis of educational practice. If the data show that X is true, but X seems really peculiar, do we assume X is probably true, or do we assume that we just don't understand things very well yet? A new study provides something of an object lesson in this problem; in this case "X" was "parents teaching reading at home doesn't help much after kindergarten."
Here's the background on that counterintuitive finding. The work was inspired by the home literacy model (Senechal & LeFevre, 2000). It posits two dimensions of home literacy experience: formal experiences are those in which the parent focuses the child's attention on print, for example by teaching letters of the alphabet, or pointing out that two words look the same, or that we read from left to right.
Informal experiences are those for which print is present, but is not the focus of attention; reading aloud to one's child would be an example. Children usually look at pictures, not print, during a read-aloud.
Previous research from this research team, and others, has shown that formal and informal experiences have different effects. Formal experiences are associated with early literacy skills like knowing letters, and later, with word reading. Informal experiences, in contrast, are associated with growth in vocabulary and general knowledge.
But data supporting the home literacy model have usually been concurrent, not predictive, and have been limited to preschool, kindergarten, and early 1st grade. That is, the research shows an association between the relevant factors measured now, as opposed to showing that the home factors at, say, kindergarten, predict growth in reading outcomes for the 1st grade and beyond. That's peculiar.
There are at least two possible reasons. One is that the home literacy environment does have an impact on literacy growth, but researchers have been looking for the effect in 1st grade - just at the time that school instruction is so heavy. So perhaps the impact of home literacy environment on literacy growth is overwhelmed by the effect of school instruction. A second possible reason is that the home literacy environment may change as a consequence of how the parents perceive their child is doing in school.
A new study (Senechal & LeFevre, 2014) used a clever design to examine both possibilities. Subjects were 84 children in Quebec who spoke English at home, but for whom the language of instruction at school was French. So researchers could test progress in English, and thereby examine the impact of the home literacy environment independent of schooling. The research measured various aspects of children's literacy -- reading and oral language -- from kindergarten until spring of second grade. In addition, researchers used a number of measures to characterize their formal and informal literacy experiences at home.
The results provided strong support for the Home Literacy Model. Formal literacy activities at home were linked not only to performance in reading English, but, in contrast to prior work, a relationship was observed with growth in reading English from kindergarten to 1st Grade. Thus, there is some support of the idea that previous studies failed to observe the relationship because the experiences at school overwhelmed any effect that home experiences might have had.
But that can't be the whole story, because the relationship was no longer observed in 2nd grade. This is where parental responsiveness comes in. English instruction, one hour daily, began in 2nd grade, and so parents began to get feedback from schools about their child's English reading at that time.
Researchers found that the degree to which parents taught their children English at home was positively associated with student outcomes in kindergarten and 1st grade. But there was a negative association in 2nd grade. A straightforward interpretation is that many parents engaged in some English teaching at home during kindergarten and 1st grade, and the more of it they did, the better for their kids. Then in 2nd grade, parents get feedback from the school about their child's reading in English. If their child is doing well, parents ease off on the teaching at home. If their child is doing poorly, they increase reading. Indeed, researchers found that most parents -- 76 percent -- changed their formal literacy practices in response to their child's reading performance in 2nd grade. So you end up with a negative correlation of parental instruction and child performance in 2nd grade. The kids who are doing the worst in reading are the ones whose parents are teaching them the most.
The impact of informal literacy activities like read-alouds did not change; they were consistently linked to growth in vocabulary and other measures of oral language from kindergarten through second grade.
It should be noted that the parents in this study had greater than average education - more than half had a university degree. It's a good bet then, that the baseline home literacy environment was atypically high and that these parents may have been more responsive to their child's literacy outcomes than others would have been. We should not generalize these findings broadly.
Still, in this case, "X" turned out to be explicable and sensible. It appeared that parents teaching literacy at home did not help children's literacy because other variables had gone uncontrolled. This study doesn't solve the broader problem - we never know if our understanding of an issue is incomplete to the point of inaccuracy - but that's one issue on which we are at least closer to the truth.
Senechal, M., & LeFevre, J. (2002). Parental involvement in the development of children’s reading skill: A 5-year longitudinal study. Child Development, 73, 445–460.
Senechal M. & Lefevre, J. (in press). Continuity and change in the home literacy environment as predictors of growth in vocabulary and reading. Child Development.