Parent literacy DOES seem to impact child reading success

In my fourth blog, I posed the question “should we make a stronger case for improved literacy classes for parents because it will increase their child’s reading success?”  This, of course, assumes that the literacy level of the parents will influence a child’s reading ability, which is the topic that I would like to explore in more detail.  In doing so, I looked closely at Roberts, Jurgens, and Burchinal’s (2005) study “The Role of Home Literacy Practices in Preschool Children’s Language and Emergent Literacy Skills.”  I was trying to figure out if I can find any correlation between parent literacy level and child reading success, especially since it appears that there have not been any studies that examined this issue in this way.  (There have been countless studies examining the socio-economic status of parents and the way it relates to child literacy levels, but I’m not in the business of reinventing the wheel here…)

In Roberts, Jurgens, and Burchinal’s study, they followed 72 children from the time they were infants until they started Kindergarten measuring the increase in their reading ability during that time.  In doing so, they examined four specific measures of home literacy practices “(i.e. parents’ perceptions of frequency of shared book reading and of how much a child enjoys being read to, maternal book reading strategies, and maternal sensitivity during shared book reading)” (p. 348).  For my purposes, I am not as interested in maternal sensitivity (although of course, I believe in the importance of a sensitive mother), or the frequency of shared book reading (since that study has been done over and over and over again.)  What intrigues me the most is the idea of a child’s interest during book reading, and the maternal book reading strategies.  Although I know to do might spoil the ending, I skip right to the end by saying that both the child’s interest during book reading and strong maternal book reading strategies correlate to stronger reading skills for the child.  (gasp!!!)  Not surprised?  Ok, me neither.  But what I want to investigate in more detail is why, and specifically, how this might be used to argue for a strong correlation between parent literacy skills and child reading success.


In terms of child interest during book reading, the study states that “the role of parents is to create an interactional context that encourages a child’s interest in reading” (p. 346).  Obviously. 

But how easy is this for parents who do not even have a firm grasp of the language they are reading in?  Picture this scenario…… There are countless immigrant parents, struggling through adult schools to try and improve their English little by little, who have children born and raised in the US.  Most of these parents try incredibly hard to give their children the advantages in life that they may not have had.  In doing so, they try to follow the advice of pre-school teachers who preach about the benefits of reading to your child as much as possible.  At the same time, these same parents are listening to their ESL teachers who are telling them about the vast improvements they can make in their English simply by reading to their children on a regular basis.  So, the dutiful non-native English speaking parent makes the trek to the public library, checks out the Very Hungry Caterpillar, and makes the journey back home.  When this same parent decides to sit down and read the story to their child, they may find, embarrassingly enough, that a book written for three and four year olds is full of difficult words that need to be sounded out.  After all, what ESL teacher puts “caterpillar” into their beginning level lesson plans? 

As a result, the parent ends up sounding out words at whatever pace they can muster, while the child fidgets on their lap.  If a parent’s reading slows down to focus on accuracy, their fluency will definitely be affected.  Does fluency and rate impact a child’s interest during book reading?  My guess would be that it does, which in turn, will have a negative impact on the child’s reading ability.  Additionally, if reading is difficult and seems like a struggle for the parent, doesn’t that apprehension and difficult feeling transfer to the child?  Chances are that it does.  Strike one for the struggling non-native English-speaking parent….


Maternal book reading strategies were also shown in this study to correlate to stronger child reading skills.  “Specific parent behaviors, such as asking open-ended questions, adding information, focusing on print concepts, and eliciting abstract language, are related to children’s later language skills” (p. 347).  This sounds great for parents who have no problems reading the stories that they may pick up at the library, or that their children may bring home from school. 

However, how difficult is it for a parent to ask open-ended questions if they didn’t even understand half of the words they were reading in the first place?  How monumental is the task of adding even more information when the information on the page is daunting enough?  How is someone supposed to focus on print concepts, or elicit abstract language, when they are just learning to navigate the language for themselves?  Once again, these factors that have been shown to lead to positive changes in child reading ability are next to impossible for parents who are just learning the language.  Strike two for the struggling non-native English-speaking parent…..


But, there may be hope.  I believe that more literacy programs can be put in place that focus on both the parent and the child, and which can lead to a more holistic advancement in the reading level of everyone involved.  But I’ll hold on to train of thought for next time….




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