Study: Can Early Parent-Child Reading Close Potential Performance Gap?

The question: What is the evidence of effectiveness of parent-child book reading with preschool children in improving school readiness and early language?

Ellen Galinsky, chief science officer 
at the Bezos Family Foundation where she also serves as executive director of Mind in the Making, wrote about reading with children, “For a long time, we’ve been told, “read to children!” As important as this message is, it has frustrated me. It’s not JUST reading to children that matters; it is HOW we read to children that has benefits for us and for them.”

She added: “This may sound like a guilt-trip, but it’s not! There are simple ways to read to children that make it more fun for us and for children and that promote their learning even better. These don’t cost money or take lots of time. I certainly know from my research on work and family life that time is something we all feel starved for.”

Now new UK research offers a “systematic review of parent-child reading,” specifically the impact it can make on the “stark gap in performance between children from higher and lower socio-economic backgrounds [that] has opened up by the time they have reached school.”

Study: Parent-Child Reading & Language Development

The 2018 study from Newcastle University is titled “Parent-child reading to improve language development and school readiness: A systematic review and meta-analysis.” (Note: a Research Snapshot is also provided.)

The study aims to answer these questions:

  • “What is the evidence of effectiveness of joint book reading with preschool children in improving school readiness and early language?”
  • “How does effectiveness vary between characteristics of children, for different adult relationships to the child and with different reading intervention activities?”
  • “To what extent does this evidence translate into medium and long term improvements in language and literacy outcomes for children?”
  • “What should be recommended to early years practitioners, commissioners and policy makers about the messages associated with early parent/child reading?”

Parent-Child Reading Study: Context

The study context is important. The authors, led by Professor James Law, write: “For a number of years now population studies have shown us that parental book reading in the early years is an important feature of what is sometimes called the child’s Home Learning Environment (HLE) and appears to protect children from later difficulties. But is it possible to intervene to increase parental book reading and what difference does it make to key areas of child development such as oral language and pre-reading skills?”

They continue: “In this report we carry out a narrowly constrained systematic review focusing specifically on book reading interventions carried out specifically by parents and [caregivers] with preschool children (up to the age of five years) and looking primarily at the impact of parent child reading interventions on expressive and receptive language and pre-reading skills.”

To conduct the study, the authors “identified 22 studies which met our inclusion criteria and of these we were able to combine (meta-analyse) the results from 16 studies. Altogether, the review reported on 751 children receiving interventions, and 569 control group children, and were conducted across 5 countries. The mean age of the children was forty months.

Parent-Child Reading Study: The Findings

There were a number of key findings from the review:

  • “The first is that the majority of the studies show positive effects but the largest effect by quite a long way was on receptive language skills. The average effect size of 0.68 for receptive vocabulary is equivalent to an advantage of 8 months using criteria developed by the Education Endowment Foundation.”
  • “The average effect size for receptive vocabulary was twice that for pre-reading skills and for expressive language. This is especially important for two reasons. Receptive language skills are more predictive of later educational and social difficulties in school and, to date, evidence has suggested that early receptive language skills were the most difficult to change.”
  • “Other findings from the review indicated that early book reading was powerful throughout the preschool period particularly for receptive language development, but book reading was also effective for children over three years of age and slightly more effective with more socially disadvantaged children.
  • “There was some indication that studies which included electronic devices had similar effects to those that used books. Interestingly, in practice, shared reading was found to be more effective than dialogic methods for receptive language development. Importantly and unlike most of the findings from the other reviews our findings were relatively consistent or homogeneous (the results going in the same direction). This is almost certainly a function of the narrow focus of the review and gives us confidence in predicting what is reasonably achievable in this area.”
  • “Finally, the intervention effects seem to be as strong at relatively low doses as they were at higher doses, suggesting that book reading may have the potential to have an inoculation effect in terms of future child development.”

Tomorrow: Study constraints and recommendations for next steps

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