Parents' high school completion critical factor in literacy performance of children

Armen Hareyan's picture
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Parenting and Child Education

The children of parents who have not completed high school are more likely to struggle with reading and writing, says a landmark University of Alberta study that proves family literacy programs can make a difference not only on the child's reading ability but the parents as well.

Despite assumptions about the benefit of literacy programs this study is the first to offer quantitative proof that parent-child literacy interventions for families of low educational and low income backgrounds do work. The study was conducted by Dr. Linda Phillips, professor in the Department of Elementary Education and Director of the Canadian Centre for Research on Literacy and her colleagues, Dr. Ruth Hayden and Dr. Stephen Norris.

"This study is unique because it attempted to look at the corresponding relationship between the mother and father's educational level and how well kids do on early screening tests," said Phillips, director of the Canadian Centre for Research on Literacy. "It became so definitive that based upon parental educational levels, we could predict how the kids would do. What this tells us is that it is critical for students to finish high school or this vicious circle of literacy will never improve if we don't improve the education level of parents and would-be parents across the country."

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Over five years, Phillips and her research team followed 47 low-income and low-educational families. The program, "Learning Together," saw individual sessions for the parents and the children--between three and five years old--as well as a joint adult-child session. It consisted of eight units of study taught for 90 hours across 12 weeks of instruction designed to improve children's literacy, parent's literacy and the parents' ability to help their children. Control group families were matched with the treatment families on all demographic factors, starting with the age and sex of the child. These families carried on their lives without intervention but followed the same testing and interviewing pattern as the matched families in the treatment groups.

The study was grounded on the premise that parental interactive strategies and the quantity and variety of print materials available in the home are factors that affect children's preparation for meaningful formal literacy instruction.

For example, the study showed that everyday activities often taken for granted such as reading flyers, writing grocery lists and singing songs together in the car can and do foster collective learning for both parents and children.

"Parents in the study noted that their children were able to write their own names, make lists, read to pets and dolls, memorize texts of shared books, make labels for objects and more," says Phillips. "Not only did some of these kids take off like wildfire but their parents' reading improved at the same time. And the gains that these families made from participating in the program were sustained over time."

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