Start with the Parents: How Teaching Literacy Skills to Parents is Imperative to Child Reading Success

 For the last several weeks, I have been contemplating what kind of impact parents’ literacy skills have on the reading ability of their children.  After I completed extensive research and careful investigation of this topic, I realized that a parent with high literacy skills, who actually uses these skills when reading to his or her children, will be more likely to have a child who has better emergent literacy skills at a young age.  Although this fact seems obvious, the reasons for these findings are not as straightforward as they might seem.  Before I started this research, I believed that simply reading to a child was enough to improve their literacy skills later in life.  However, each of the three longitudinal studies that I read argued that there is actually a weak correlation between frequency of reading to a child and emergent literacy success when researchers control for all other variables.  Simply reading to a child will not guarantee that you have the next voracious reader on your hands.  The next logical question any current or future parent (or concerned citizen) might ask is, how can I increase the chances of my child being a reading superstar?

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To find the answer to this question, I investigated three longitudinal studies that all looked at family literacy activities (between parents and children in the home), as well as children’s various successes as they become older (look here, here, here, or here if you want to read them for yourself; Evans, Shaw, & Bell, 2000).  All of these studies were quite extensive, with various forms of observation, questionnaires, and interviews to determine the type of literacy activities practiced in the home.  Additionally, each of these studies followed children for a long period of time to see which emergent literacy skills developed, and whether or not these skills met the original expectations of the researchers.

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Most of the original studies that led to this idea that simply reading to children will increase their reading ability, focused on the frequency and not the quality of storybook reading activities (like this one).  However, after further research, all three of these detailed studies concluded that two types of reading activities typically happen in the home.  Informal literacy interactions, which consist of storybook reading that is done just for the content and enjoyment of the story, was found to influence a child’s speaking skills, but not their reading or writing skills (and thus does not directly impact a child’s reading ability).  On the other hand, formal literacy interactions, or parent teaching, where a parent focuses on the form of the language rather than the meaning of a story, was found to directly impact a child’s reading and writing ability (Look here,  here, here, or here for more info).  As a result, the research shows that parents need to actually teach literacy skills to their children in order to prepare them to be successful readers later in life.  Reading a story every night without ever stopping to focus on the letters of the alphabet or sounds in each word may, in fact, not raise a good reader.

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Although the studies I read were incredibly thought-provoking, there were certain areas where they came short in terms of my areas of interest with ESL parents.  First of all, all three longitudinal studies controlled for parental literacy so that they were able to simply see the correlation between formal and informal literacy activities, and child reading success.  Although I appreciate and understand the need to control for literacy in these studies, the research is definitely lacking in terms of a study that looks at these factors without controlling for the literacy of the parents.  Despite the fact that I’m sure that I already know the answer, it would be interesting to see a study that did not control for literacy, and therefore was able to determine whether less literate parents were less likely to practice formal literacy activities in the home, and vice versa.  If that study were done, it would be easy to argue for the need for parent literacy classes that would allow parents to feel empowered to practice formal literacy skills with their children at home.

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Another shortcoming with these studies, in terms of my area of interest with ESL students, is that many of these implications cannot easily be transferred to parents who do not have the linguistic capacity to engage in formal literacy activities with their children, especially in English.  All of the research about parents reading to their children and/or focusing on formal literacy activities implies that it is possible for parents to engage in both types of activities, which is simply not true for low-literate or nonnative speakers of English (if the child is expected to go to school in the United States, and thus acquire emergent reading skills in English).  As a result, I have come up with a few ideas of how to expand these studies, to include parents who do not currently have the linguistic ability to practice formal and informal literacy activities with their children at home.  If these studies were done, it would be easy to see the correlation between literacy ability and the frequency of these literacy activities in the home, and a stronger argument could be made for giving parents the literacy skills they need to help their children succeed.

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When I first started investigating this topic, I wanted to focus on simply all ESL learners who do not currently have the ability to engage in formal literacy activities with their children because they do not have the educational background or knowledge of the English language to do so.  However, that broad focus brought up another issue that still needs to be investigated.  What if these same parents were literate in their first languages, and were able to teach literacy skills to their children using books and resources in their native language?  In this case, would a child still be more likely to be a successful reader of English once he or she entered school and started learning more about the English language?  Is it the actual lessons in literacy that are important, or the lessons in English literacy that make a difference?  Furthermore, could a parent who has knowledge of the spoken English language but is lacking in English literacy skills, still pass on strong literacy skills to his or her child?  Or is it the actual literacy that makes all of the difference?

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In exploring these questions, I turned to a study that looked at emergent literacy skills in children of immigrants who come from a primarily oral culture.  This study focused much more on the issues I was investigating, with the other longitudinal studies, by looking at the ways that the “cumulative effects of poverty, oral home culture, parental inability to mediate language and literacy, and non-optimal conditions for becoming bilingual place young immigrant children at risk for academic failure early on.”  (It is important to note that this is not referring to all immigrant children, but primarily those with parents who are unable to help them acquire the literacy skills they need to be successful in school.)  These parents are restricted in their ability to enhance and transmit literacy skills to their children, which, looking at the findings from the studies listed above, implies that the children will not have the same emergent literacy success as their peers who receive informal and formal literacy instruction from their parents at home.  This study found that parents with low-literacy levels were more likely to have children who were not successful readers in school, whereas parents who had higher levels of literacy (but all other variables the same), were more likely to have children who had higher emergent literacy skills.

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If I were able to conduct further research in this area, I would like to combine the nature of both of these areas of study to get to the heart of the question that I truly want to investigate.  I would have three groups of parents, those with high literacy abilities in English, those with low-literacy abilities in English but high literacy abilities in their native languages, and those with low-literacy abilities in any language.  I would conduct a study that researched the frequency and type of both formal and informal literacy activities occurring in the home (just like the three longitudinal studies mentioned above).  I would then look at the results to determine the frequency of formal and informal literacy activities for each of the three groups, as well as the emergent literacy skills for their perspective children.  Finally, I would investigate this data to see which factors had the largest results in terms of determining child reading success.

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It would be interesting to know whether parents who have high literacy abilities in English but do not frequently engage in formal literacy activities with their children are more likely to raise successful readers than parents with lower literacy skills in English but more frequent formal literacy interaction with their children in their native language.  Additionally, it would be useful to know just how much of a detriment it is for children to have parents who are unable to teach them formal literacy skills in any language.

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All of these findings would help me argue the point that I have wanted to make since I first started on this inquiry.  In my opinion, we need to help the parents in our society acquire the skills they need to be successful readers, before we can expect all of the children in our schools to have an equal chance to succeed.  Once children enter school and begin to learn literacy skills from their Kindergarten teacher, they are already years behind their peers who have been engaging in formal and informal literacy activities with their parents since they were first born.  We should be helping parents acquire English literacy, from the very moment they arrive in the United States.  This instruction should not take over their native language, or force people to learn what they are not ready to learn.  However, if parents want their children to be successful readers, which is a necessary foundation to be successful students, both formal and informal literacy activities need to take place in the home from a very young age.  Only parents who have the knowledge and education to engage in those literacy activities themselves will be able to help their children on this journey.  As a result, I believe it is imperative that we start with the parents, and teach literacy skills that will help their children be successful readers and learners, for generations to come.

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