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Read on Get On: Why encouraging parents to read with their children matters

This morning saw the launch of Save the Children’s ‘Read On, Get On’ campaign. The report highlights the educational, social and economic costs (£32 billion) of poor literacy and will encourage all parents to spend at least ten minutes a day reading with their children.

This campaign matters because we know that

  • How parents interact with their children matters
  • Knowledge and beliefs about child development shape parents’ interactions with their children

Parent-child interactions matter (a lot)

In 2003, two American researchers, Hart and Risely described what they called ‘an early catastrophe’: In the 1960s they had been involved in the ‘war on poverty’ but looking back they felt the effects of the work ‘washed out… fairly completely’. Puzzled, they decided to investigate further; they launched an intensive research project observing and tape-recording the every-day interactions amongst 42 families from different socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds.

They compared the language used in over 1,300 observations of casual parent-child interactions and found how closely young children’s language reflected their parents’ . As a result, by the age of three children from professional families were already using more ‘different words’ than the parents of the ‘welfare’ and ‘working-class’ parents – hence the title of their article “The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3”.

Professional families (n=13)

Working-class (n=23)

Welfare

(n=6)

ParentChildParentChildParentChild
Recorded vocabulary

2176

1116

1498

749

974

525

Average different words per hour

382

297

251

216

167

149

 

  • The children in a professional family experienced a ratio of 6 encouragements to 1 discouragement per hour.
  • The children in a working-class family experience a ratio of 2 encouragements to 1 discouragement.
  • The children in a family on welfare experienced a ratio of 1 encouragement to 2 discouragements.

The differences between the families were not short-lived. 29 of them participated in a further study and it turned out that vocabulary aged 3 was an excellent predictor of test scores aged 9-10.

Of course Hart and Risely were carrying out observations rather than testing causality – so the above data doesn’t show that it was language use that mattered. However, Siraj-Blatchford et al.’s EPPSE study, in which they tracked and studied over 3000 children in the UK from the age of 3 to 16 showed that children who ‘succeeded against the odds’ had very different interactions with their parents compared to their peers who did not.

The ‘odds beating’ children participated in activities like “joint storybook reading, oral storytelling, mealtime conversations, games with numbers, painting and drawing and also visits to the library.” The researchers argued that these activities “offer rich language experiences… and typically offer examples of rare words”.

So language can trump background.

The nature of interactions is malleable

If the quality of parent-child interactions were fixed and language use limited by parents’ own language it would be hard to change things. However, the EPPSE study suggests that it was parents’ belief in “their ability to positively affect their child’s development” that shaped their interactions. An American study by Meredith Row reaches similar conclusions. Rowe wanted to know why parent-child communication styles differed. After studying 47 sets of parents she concluded that it was their knowledge of child development that mattered and that ‘parents adjust their child directed speech accordingly’. Waldfogel and Washbrook summarise several interventions which have attempted to tackle factors such as parental interactions and some have shown strong evidence of impact (including in RCTs).

 

Schools have a huge task on their hands compensating for the accident of birth, however, if today’s campaign succeeds in encouraging positive, language-rich interactions there is grounds for believing we might see progress. Furthermore, if it turns out it is possible to affect what parents do with their children, the benefits could be still bigger.

This is not the only project to have sought to change parental behaviour, but it is perhaps the most high profile. For this reason I will enthusiastically support the campaign and watch its results with great interest.

You can find out how to support the campaign at www.readongeton.org.uk.

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