As early childhood educators, we know that children learn from birth and that families are children’s most important educators. Studies have shown that intensive interventions with families have an impact on children’s learning – but would a non-intensive intervention change how parents or caregivers support their children’s literacy and numeracy skills at home? Also, would a non-intensive intervention with parents contribute to different gains in the literacy and numeracy skills of their children compared with other children? These are questions that Dr Frank Niklas and I set out to answer over the course of 2014. The results of our study are very interesting.
A total of 116 families of children attending four different early childhood settings in the greater Melbourne area took part. The children were all due to start school in 2015. All families were invited to attend a parents’ evening at which the importance of the home learning environment and the role that parents play as role models were discussed. Specific ways to encourage children’s literacy and numeracy skills were suggested, like counting steps when climbing stairs and comparing prices at the supermarket. Thirty-seven families attended the parents’ evenings, and all 37 families accepted an invitation to attend a subsequent individual session.
Individual sessions lasted about 45 minutes. Families were given a dice-based counting game to play with their children and shown how to focus on principles of counting that go beyond simply reciting the number words, such as tagging one object with one number word without skipping or double-counting an object, and recognizing that the last number word spoken when counting has a special meaning as it says how many things have been counted. Parents were also presented with a copy of the children’s book, “Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy”. Parents were shown how to use dialogic reading strategies that include, for example, asking children what, when, where, why and how questions; talking about the illustrations and expanding on remarks children make while reading the book. In this way, books are used to encourage children to think more deeply, and to explain their ideas using new words.
In addition, the children’s families and their educators completed surveys at the beginning, middle and end of 2014. Children’s literacy and numeracy skills were assessed at the same points as well.
Most of the 37 families who attended the parents’ evenings said that they adapted the way they approached literacy and numeracy activities at home. Almost all children in the study made gains in literacy and numeracy over the course of the study.
Children who live in richer home literacy environments (for example, homes in which adults read frequently and in which there are many books) performed better on literacy tasks such as rhyming. They also had broader vocabularies. Similarly, a strong connection between the way numeracy is approached at home and children’s early numerical skills was found.
- The non-intensive intervention did not seem to have an effect on the home literacy environment or on children’s literacy skills – perhaps because the children whose families attended the parents’ evening started off with higher literacy skills than the other children in the study.
- Parents’ surveys reveal that almost half of the children were read to before they were six months old. The age at which children were first read to was closely associated with how frequently they were still being read to at age four, and with their literacy and general cognitive skills. Starting to read to children when they are very young seems to be an important part of supporting children’s literacy learning at home.
Parents reported making significantly more improvements to their home numeracy environment and interestingly, children’s numeracy skills showed different results.
- Children whose parents attended a parents’ evening and an individual session showed significantly greater gains on the numeracy assessment than the other children in the study.
- Children’s concept formation (an indicator of fluid reasoning and important for academic progress) showed greater gains than the children whose parents did not attend the parents’ evening and the individual session.
The results of this study show that a non-intensive intervention – the parents’ evening and the 45-minute individual session showing parents how to implement dialogic reading strategies and counting strategies – may make a significant contribution to the quality of the home learning environment. In turn, this may have important benefits for children’s learning outcomes and support their transition to school. Providing this level of support to families is likely to be achievable for early childhood educators and would be a meaningful contribution to family-centred practice.