Early Literacy: How Parent Involvement Has Evolved

A recent study published in the Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, investigates how families have supported their children’s early literacy and how this support has evolved over the past century.

Although the study is focused on the United Kingdom, its reach goes beyond just that part of the world; many of the findings are applicable across the globe, and research is drawn from diverse countries, including the United States.

The authors begin by defining the term literacy, and explain that its meaning has become more “nuanced” with time. They claim that literacy is a fairly new label that came to be an “umbrella term for reading and writing” only recently.

As the researchers began their exploration of what literacy interactions look like between parents and children, they found that even though there may be an established definition of the word literacy for the purposes of their study, the meaning of the word varies from home to home depending on families’ backgrounds and customs.

More specifically, they explain that “systems of reading and writing vary between cultures,” and emphasize that this variety “has implications for understanding home literacies in the multicultural context of the UK, and indeed in cultures across the world.”

Within this framework, the researchers set out to answer two questions: how families have been involved in their children’s early literacy over the past century and how structured programs have supported parental involvement during this time. To answer these questions, the authors dove into legislation, data, and studies from this hundred-year period.

Interestingly, the researchers found that education legislation generally ignored families’ roles in their children’s early literacy growth, and instead focused on schools’ responsibilities. It wasn’t until the late 20th century “when parents’ roles in their children’s learning began to receive official policy recognition.”

Outside of the law, there was more fluidity between parents’ and schools’ involvement in literacy development, with responsibility for it moving comfortably between both parties. Still, the authors explain that there were structures in place within this flexible interchange. Specifically, reading instruction was expected at school, and reading practice was expected at home.

Throughout most of the 20th century, the dominating model was parents’ separation from teaching literacy. However, more recently the opposite expectation arose: the authors cite the 2014 proclamation of a high ranking English official that punishment should be given to parents not reading to their children.

Before this public change in attitude, the tide had started to slowly change decades earlier, with researchers in the late 20th century looking into how schools could facilitate more active parent involvement in reading instruction and programs to integrate parents into reading lessons forming in the 1980’s. The authors note that although such initiatives for parental involvement in early literacy teaching are commonplace today, they were “innovative” in the 1980’s because they significantly “extended children’s opportunities to practice reading at home.”

The desire since that time has continued to be for parents of all backgrounds to engage in early literacy practice with their children, but there are challenges. Specifically, education researchers and officials have realized that parents don’t have equal teaching and literacy skills to support their young learners. Further, the interest and engagement among parents varies.

In recent years, it has even been necessary for some researchers to convince many parents of the benefits of reading at home. Given this void and parents’ differing skill levels, family literacy programs have been especially helpful, since they can fill in competency gaps where they exist.

Fortunately, the researchers found that over time, family literacy programs have become "better adapted to the range of needs, interests and backgrounds of the diversity of families who participate.” This is a promising development, which will help to get all students starting off their literacy journeys on the right foot.

StepUp Summary:

StepUp to Learn includes a series of programs for individual use at home.  Our approach combines movement, rhythm, and repetition with an early learning curriculum. StepUp helps children make permanent progress in reading (and math and handwriting, too!) in 20 minutes a day -- at school or at home!

P.S. If you liked this post, why not get our Learning in Motion email?
Awesome, research-based ideas for learning enrichment.
Get on the list.