Sénéchal, Monique & Le Fevre, J. (2002). Parental Involvement in the Development of Children’s Reading Skill: A Five-Year Longitudinal Study. Child Development, 73(2), 445-460.
In my quest for finding out whether or not improved literacy skills of parents impact literacy success in their children, nearly every article I found cited the longitudinal study by Sénéchal and Le Fevre, so I decided that it would be a perfect article to examine more closely. This study was quite complex, and made me wish on more than one occasion that I had paid better attention in the statistics course I took over ten years ago! However, after digging through all of the nitty gritty details, I realized that this study does begin to answer many of the questions I have been asking, and points clearly to other areas where research is lacking and where I would like to do a closer examination.
The article I am reviewing for this blog post presented the findings of a five-year longitudinal study of 168 children. The study investigated the relationship between early home literacy experiences and reading achievement in the third grade. The goal of the study was to “examine the pathways from children’s early knowledge and experiences through to fluent reading, with a focus on how parental involvement is related to the development of reading skills (Sénéchal & Le Fevre, 2002, p. 445). One of the most important distinctions this article makes, in terms of relating to my area of interest, is between informal and formal literacy activities. Informal literacy activities are those for which the primary goal is the message contained in the print, not the actual words themselves. For example, if a parent reads a fairy tale to a child with the purpose of telling a good story, or teaching a moral lesson, this would be considered an informal literacy activity. On the other hand, formal literacy activities are those where the parent and child focus on the words, or the print in the story more than the meaning. For example, a book focusing on ABCs or rhyming words is read to teach formal literacy. However, it is possible to teach both formal literacy and informal literacy while reading the same story, simply by engaging in different activities. This study examines all of the different literacy practices that the parents in the study complete with their children, and studies the impact these activities had on their children over the course of the five years in the study.
To determine how often they engaged in informal literacy activities with their children, parents were asked to report on how many books they read to their children. To test for accuracy, parents were asked to identify popular children’s book titles and authors, with false titles and authors thrown in to ensure parents did not simply randomly select books that they have never actually read with their children. I question the accuracy of these results. It seems to me this might be easy to do for books you have read over and over again with your children, but there is no guarantee that a parent can recall the title and author of a book he or she may have picked up from the local library and read with his or her child only one time. Additionally, some parents may be better at recalling titles and authors of storybooks, while others simply remember the content. However, I cannot think of a more flawless way of capturing this data, without recording parents reading to their children at home, which would be extremely impractical to do on a large scale.
To determine how often parents focused on formal literacy activities, parents were simply asked to report on how frequently they taught their child about reading and writing words, or the sound and letter correspondences within these words. Once again, this does not seem like the most accurate way to record formal literacy activities, but gathering “hard data” would be nearly impossible when looking at such a large number of children for over five years.
One of the most interesting findings of this study, and one that has a great deal of impact in my research, is that there is no correlation between the frequency that parents engage in informal literacy activities, and the frequency that these same parents engage in formal literacy activities. In other words, just because a parent reads a lot of books to his or her children, does not necessarily mean he or she will focus on the words and the sounds in the English language, or vice versa.
The main finding of this study was that parent-child reading that involved informal literacy activities were directly related to the development of receptive language, especially when children reached first and third grade. Additionally, parent-child reading that involved formal literacy activities were directly related to the development of emergent literacy, especially in the pre-K and Kindergarten years. These factors were determined by giving emergent literacy tests to the children in pre-K and Kindergarten (focused on alphabet knowledge, decoding, consonant-vowel awareness, and invented spelling), as well as in first and third grade (focused on reading comprehension, speed, and ability), and comparing these results to the earlier literacy activities reported by their parents.
As a result, the study argues that simply reading to children should have some impact on their reading comprehension as they get older, but may not be much as much of a benefit in helping them learn to read or recognize sounds and letters in pre-K and Kindergarten. Similarly, simply focusing on the structure of the language and the words on the page might result in a child learning to read at a younger age, or be a better speller, but may not necessarily impact their reading success later in life. So, you may be asking yourself, what is the point of this whole study? From what I can tell, it is of vital importance for parents to engage in BOTH informal and formal literacy activities while their children are growing up.
The main reason this article did not give me everything I could ever dream of, and more, is that it focused on middle and upper-middle class families. All of the 168 children in the study were native English speakers, which means none of this data speaks directly to the question that I am investigating. Although the study did account for literacy differences between parents, namely their education level and how much they enjoy reading themselves, it did not account for parents who might enjoy reading but are unable to do it because of language barriers. Additionally, it did not speak to the low-literacy, non-native English speaking population I am focused on that may or may not have easy access to books to read to their children, and may or may not be able to afford a great deal of books to keep in their homes.