Study: Parents + Children + Books Can Help Language, Learning

The study's bottom line: "Actively engaging parents in the book reading process has the potential to make a real difference to the child’s language outcomes, and this is especially true for vulnerable preschool children."

New UK research has reviewed the many roles that parent-child reading with preschool children can have not only on early learning, but on helping close 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.”

As the first part of our review on the parent-child reading study noted, the Newcastle University study is titled “Parent-child reading to improve language development and school readiness: A systematic review and meta-analysis.”

The study seeks to answer:

  • “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: The Findings

Among the key findings:

  • “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.”
  • “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.”
  • “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.”

Parent-Child Reading Study: Constraints

The study notes some constraints, which came when the authors sought to extend their research beyond the UK.

The authors note: “While the majority (15) were carried out in the US there were also two from South Africa, two from Canada, two from Israel and one from Hong Kong. The findings were comparable across countries. None of the included studies had been carried out in the UK. In the light of common practice in some areas it is significant that we identified no intervention studies which sought to assess the effects of a universal model of book gifting, simply giving books to everyone.

They continue: “Similarly, we found no studies which allowed us to draw comparisons between the relative role of mothers, fathers, other carers and siblings. And finally, we were not able to capture long term effects of such interventions. In summary, this is a tightly constrained systematic review with clear findings. The results are coherent even if the average outcomes were slightly lower than some other reviews.”

But the authors state: “Nevertheless they give a clear indication of the level of response that should be predicted from this type of intervention.”

Parent-Child Reading Study: Next Steps

The authors’ key conclusion: “The fact that the effect of parent-child book reading is so marked for language development, an important aspect of development that has long-term implications for learning and wellbeing, highlights the need for structured book reading promotion activity.”

They continue: “A distinction is sometimes drawn between dialogic and shared book reading. We could find no difference between the two for expressive outcomes, but a greater impact of shared reading approaches for receptive outcomes.”

Of course, this opportunity also comes with an additional challenge: “Clearly a critical message is that it is showing parents how to be active partners in their child’s communication that is important, and the book or device is the means by which this can be achieved.”

Interestingly, the authors link the opportunity to positively impact early learning to the subsequent public health benefits: “There is clearly support for this type of interaction to be a central part of the public health offer in the UK delivered by health visitors but it is also a message for carers more widely, that reading to the child in the early years, ie. long before they are learning to read, can have a marked effect on children’s abilities.”

The bottom line: “Actively engaging parents in the book reading process has the potential to make a real difference to the child’s language outcomes, and this is especially true for vulnerable preschool children.”

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