The Effect of Family Literacy Interventions on Children’s Acquisition of Reading from Kindergarten to Grade 3

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Monique Senechal
Read the full paper
The paper was originally written for the National Center for Family Literacy


The goal of this report was to review the scientific literature on parent involvement in the acquisition of reading from kindergarten to grade three by looking at various intervention studies. There were 14 intervention studies in which researchers tested whether parent involvement enhanced children’s literacy. This review of parent involvement in literacy acquisition was narrowly defined to include parent-child activities that focus on reading. The author discusses three categories of parent involvement in their child’s literacy development: school-based involvement, home-school conferencing and home-based involvement.

Key questions for this research were:

  • What evidence supports the belief that parents can help their children learn to read?
  • If parent involvement does matter, what kinds of parent involvement are most efficient?

The findings of this research were limited in two ways. First, there were a limited number of studies found that matched the selection criteria. It was not possible to determine from the available data whether particular types of intervention approaches might be more or less effective for children with and without identified reading problems, different SES backgrounds or different aged children.

The second limitation was the combination of the studies failed to produce homogeneous effect sizes. The variability couldn’t be explained through types of interventions, participant characteristics or differences in studies. This means that the overall findings must be interpreted with caution.

Key Findings

  • Educators should train parents to teach their children to read.

The studies reviewed were clear that parents of children in kindergarten to grade three can help their children learn to read. Parents are most helpful when they are trained to teach specific skills to their child. Having parents teach specific literacy skills to their children was more effective than having parents listen to their children read or having them read to their children.

  • Educators should encourage parents to listen to their children read.

The studies showed that encouraging and training parents to listen to their children read can be effective in promoting reading acquisition. No conclusions were able to be drawn, however, as to how effective the various listening approaches are.

  • Possibility that the relation between book reading and reading achievement is indirect.

The two intervention studies reviewed found that parents reading books to their child did not directly promote early literacy. The author does explain that there could well be a link between reading to a child and increased language development which in time may result in better reading comprehension. It was also pointed out that it is possible that book reading increases a child’s literate discourse which may also facilitate reading. The last indirect link refers to a child’s increased motivation in reading when a parent reads to them which in turn may lead to more frequent and fluent reading for pleasure.

  • While reading to children should be encouraged, educators need to be careful about the claims they make regarding the benefits of book reading.

Reading to a child is a wonderful sharing time and it exposes children to ideas, concepts and language that is new, varied and more complex than those introduced during parent-child conversations.

  • Home teaching and parent listening enhances children’s literacy skills.

Both approaches have positive effects but differ in how effective each approach is. Home teaching was twice as effective in enhancing literacy as was a parent listening to a child read at home. Home teaching, however, requires resources from teachers and commitment from parents. Resources such as educator-led workshops to teach parents specific techniques, appropriate books to send home, training the parents in specific exercises to use with their children or structured home programs are needed.

The paper demonstrated that it is necessary for the educators who are working with parents to build their children’s literacy, to weigh the differences in effectiveness across the different types of intervention against the amount of resources needed to implement the intervention. While it was clear that parent teaching had a positive effect, the effectiveness of different types of teaching interventions remains to be investigated.

Recommendations for Future Research

This scientific review revealed that there are still many unanswered questions that could serve to direct future research.

  • What are the beginning reading skills that are most easily taught by parents?
  • What is the optimal time for parent teaching: before, during or after specific skills are taught in school?
  • What is the role of corrective feedback when parents listen to their child read?
  • What are the types of children’s books that are most helpful?
  • How can these interventions be implemented with parents who have low literacy skills themselves?

The results of this review highlighted the importance of study quality. Greater attention to study design and precise reporting will allow future researchers to have a greater impact on how best to help parents help their children learn to read.

Other areas of suggested future research are studies that would provide evidence in the relative effectiveness of different approaches as well as how best to implement training programs with parents who have low literacy skills themselves.

It would also be of benefit to the educators who are working with parents to know what aspects of reading are most likely to be affected by parent teaching.

What Do You Think?

  1. Do you strongly agree or disagree with the findings in this paper?
  2. What are your thoughts on the conclusions presented in this paper?
  3. Can you provide examples from your own experience or from other research that support or challenge the evidence presented in this paper?
  4. There are five questions posed in this paper. Can you prioritize the list of questions?
  5. Are there any additional points or information you could provide that would encourage parents to read to and with their children?
  6. What impact do you feel this paper will have on educators and parents of young children?
  7. Are there key points presented in this paper that you feel are particularly important for consideration in the development of a national literacy strategy?


February 10th, 2009 at 10:14 pm, J Newton Says:

Very insightful. Teachers spend a lot of time trying to get parents to just read to their children. Perhaps more time spent in guiding parents through this would be beneficial.

February 14th, 2009 at 7:47 am, Jane Baskwill Says:

I have just completed a qualitative research study funded by the Canadian Council on Learning on using a “community of practice” model to involve dads in children’s early literacy development. Dads (biological, step, foster, grandfathers, uncles, male caregivers) are an important but untapped resource. When programs are aimed at “parents” it is implied that they are for moms. More work needs to be done with dads and more programs need to be aimed at and tailored to dads. My study worked with 2 cohorts of rural dads in NS and was aimed at changing the picture of dads’ involvement - hence the name “Picture it, Dads!” The study found dads had skills and interest but factors such as community/personal perceptions along with expectations and employment situations impacted on the extent to which dads took up their role. Dads also gained confidence when in groups with other dads and facilitated by local male facilitators.
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