The Role of Parents, Families and Caregivers in Young Children’s Literacy Development: A Review of Programs and Research

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Janette Pelletier
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Children learn literacy in two major contexts, their families and their Early Learning and Child care programs. Parents, as the child’s first teacher, establish the roots of a child’s literacy. When parents have knowledge about early literacy development they may provide a home environment that is more conducive to early literacy development. The parents’ understanding of children’s literacy development and of home literacy practices is a critical area of consideration in this paper.

Early Learning and Child Care (ELCC) programs which include child care centres, family child care, preschools and related family support programs, have impact through the quality of language and literacy programming they offer to the children in their care. Canada has no coordinated ELCC across the country. Each province and territory has different training programs and various services. This paper looks at the limited evidence of ELCC training on early literacy development and examines the type of training that Canadian ELCC educators receive in the area of early literacy development.

The goal of this review is to determine the current state of knowledge about the role of family and ELCC programs on early childhood literacy development and to recommend directions for future Canadian research to expand this base of knowledge.

Key Questions

To guide the review, Pelletier asks a series of questions related to both the role of the parents and families as well as the role of the ELCC programs on children’s literacy development. The questions deal with what we know as well as what are considered to be best practices. There is also a section that brings together what we know about the roles of parents, families and ELCC providers in early literacy development and focuses on issues that may moderate the effectiveness of programs designed to foster early literacy.

The review also addresses the major gaps, uncertainties and weaknesses of the Canadian research efforts on the topic of parent and ECE involvement in early literacy learning, and suggests some key priorities for research over the next few years.

Key Findings

Although parents believe their role is critical in helping children to learn, they do not have much knowledge about children’s development and learning. The impacts from this may be that developmentally inappropriate strategies are being used by parents or that some parents may not feel knowledgeable or confident enough to promote literacy in the home. They instead choose to believe that literacy should be “taught” at school.

Young children who have enjoyable literacy experiences in early childhood are likely to read frequently and widely in later years. Children whose parents regard reading as a source of entertainment have a more positive attitude towards reading than children whose parents believe that reading is a skill. Studies uncovered by the author also reveal that there is a positive correlation between maternal beliefs and children’s interest in books.

There is a huge amount of literature on parent/family literacy programs but a small proportion considers evidence on outcomes for children. Research highlighted in this review tells that family literacy programs should emphasize the importance of reading and writing for pleasure and include motivational techniques and strategies. These strategies also focus on the pleasure of the activity as well as the parent-child interaction in regards to literacy-relevant behaviours.

Early Learning and Child Care programs and providers have been included in a comprehensive review of the state of ELCC in Canada which was done in 2006 by Cleveland and his colleagues. They state that child care research has been done in three waves, and that:

  • The first wave examined whether child care was harmful for children in contrast to parental care provided at home;
  • The second wave looked at quality as a correlate of child outcomes; and
  • The third wave of research began to disentangle the factors related to home and family environments on effects of child care.

After reviewing the research, the conclusion was that not a lot is known about specific aspects of training in ELCC as it relates to early literacy development. The lack of a national child care policy and the current diversity of child care programs in Canada results in a wide array of literacy learning environments and instruction in literacy. Each of Canada’s 14 jurisdictions has its own approach to ELCC. As more becomes known regarding early literacy it seems likely that the training programs will have to grow in this direction. New information will also be needed on best practices. Practitioners will need to reflect on how to blend “play-based” motivating activities for children with intentional programming, to support specific aspects of language and literacy development.

Studies show that not all highly trained ELCC teachers provide excellent literacy programming. Excellence in programming is related to teachers’ commitment, sense of mission and deep understanding of children. Research also revealed that although some teachers may attend post-service training at professional development workshops, they do not always convey that new information to their colleagues. It was found that innovations in pre-service and in-service professional education can help improve literacy environments and outcomes. Canada’s child care programs range from programs that support optimal early literacy development to mediocre programs that provide little more than custodial care.

The paper suggests issues that may moderate the effectiveness of programs such as socioeconomic status, the home environment, and children’s and parent’s fluency in English. Family size, birth order status and siblings were seen to have possible indirect influences on early literacy development.

Gender, culture and language were also discussed as were the effectiveness of technologies in the home and child care environment. Boys were pointed out to be more sensitive to teacher’s judgements about their reading as these bring social consequences. Some research on culture and literacy shows that persons from different cultural backgrounds tend to differ in their attitudes towards emergent literacy and the emphasis they place on aspects of literacy learning for their children. Regarding language, the example of the French was used. Many children suffer from “linguistic assimilation” due to living as French language minority citizens in English communities. These children watch English television, read English books and participate in English language recreational activities. If these children go to a French language school they must attend a program of actualization to bring up their level of French. It was shown that it is critical that parents and caregivers mediate television and DVDs for infants and children even when it is billed as “educational”.

Key Recommendations

  • Conduct increased amounts of randomized controlled field experiments in family literacy research in order to answer questions.
  • Take on large-scale efforts to provide policymakers with specific evidence about specific contributions that family literacy programs make to specific aspects of children’s literacy development.
  • Develop a Canada-wide approach to literacy instruction and analyze how those features of the ELCC program contribute to particular aspects of children’s literacy development.
  • Develop a national curriculum for the early childhood period prior to Kindergarten that could provide context for program evaluation on a large scale.

Key Priorities for Continued Research

Pelletier believes that these three kinds of quality may be effectively applied to a national early learning and literacy development strategy:

  1. Procedural quality including direct interactions between children and staff;
  2. Structural quality such as staff training and education and child:staff ratio;
  3. Orientation quality which includes program and policy support at the societal level.

These key priorities are centred around the above three kinds of quality as discussed in John Bennett’s international reviews of governments’ investments in ELCC:

  1. Implementation of a national early literacy strategy including plans for systematic program evaluation research and technical assistance, including measures and indicators. This could begin with large-scale regional projects with a goal of moving toward a national collaborative project.
  2. Development of a national early literacy curriculum for use in Early Learning and Child Care settings. This may be part of a national Early Learning and Child Care curriculum.
  3. Development of a nationally-available family literacy curriculum that could link to schools through school-based programs operated outside of the provincial education system but in collaboration with same. School libraries are natural partners for family literacy (Mayfield, 1998).
  4. Options for cultural and linguistic specificity to early literacy curriculum and family literacy curriculum. We know from research that cultural specificity in programming and measurement is critical (e.g., Shapiro, Anderson & Anderson, 2002) and that parental style related to early literacy promotion may have long-term effects (e.g. Sénéchal, 2006).
  5. French language programs for Francophone communities.
  6. Website sharing of information on effective literacy practices for parents and practitioners along with highlights of the evidence base on early literacy development.
  7. Development of ELCC and family literacy training modules for early literacy strategy. There is significant literature on the importance of training in ELCC contexts on the literacy outcomes of children (Dockrell, Stuart % King, 2004; Hayden & Saunders, 1998; Podhajskl & Nathan, 2005; Wasik, Bond & Hindman, 2006).
  8. Research on professional training for ELCC teachers, in-service and pre-service. The focus should be on understanding evidence-informed practice, starting with systematic attention to individual children’s literacy development and learning, and extending to the applications to evidence-based programming (see point 6).
  9. Implementation trials to show how efficacious programs can succeed in new contexts.
  10. Randomized controlled trials to determine effectiveness before dissemination.
  11. Dissemination trials to test best ways of knowledge sharing on best practices and new evidence.
  12. Qualitative descriptions of implementation programs and context effects.
  13. Along with more formal research and implementation of evidence-based practice, encouragement of local innovation and tests of new program approaches that push the boundaries of effective practice. Design research/action research can generate promising practice for RCT testing and can bring practitioners into the research enterprise.
  14. Attention to mediators and moderators of effects in both quantitative and qualitative designs.
  15. Development of a language and literacy research database for Canadian literacy researchers (like NICHD, NLSCY). Alternatively, add detailed literacy data to NLSCY.
  16. Community mapping research should provide national data on effectiveness of a large-scale early literacy initiative, using EDI, EYE or other measures, and supplemented with representative samples using direct child literacy measures.

What Do You Think?

  1. Do you agree or disagree strongly with any of the evidence presented in the paper?
  2. Were you surprised to read about the limited evidence pertaining to effects of Early Learning and Child Care training on early literacy development?
  3. Do you agree that there needs to be a Canada-wide approach to literacy instruction in the early years?
  4. What institution(s) should take responsibility for developing a countrywide early literacy curricula?
  5. What supports for literacy development would you like to see established in your own community?
  6. What are the barriers for overcoming the lack of parents and practitioners working together to encourage early literacy development? What are practical solutions that can be introduced in addition to those presented in the paper?
  7. Is there any evidence to support or oppose those arguments made in this paper?
  8. Are there key points in this research you feel need to be taken into consideration when developing a national literacy strategy?


February 5th, 2009 at 6:12 pm, Gordon Otto Says:

National Strategy for Early Literacy
Submission of Gordon L. Otto
Calgary, Alberta
As touched upon in Janette Pelletier’s paper titled “The Role of Parents, Families and Caregivers in Young Children’s Literacy Development”, I believe parents play a critical role in early literacy.
I believe the “lowest hanging fruit” in early literacy support is to support parents in their important role as co-educators of their children. Not by replacing them with programs or paid educators, but by providing parents “basic training” in the skills and understandings that are fundamental to early literacy.
I believe that the organization “Calgary Reads” ( models the kind of “PD for Parents” that the education system fails to provide in any meaningful manner. The learning and training provided by Calgary Reads to its volunteers should be provided as “basic training” to all parents.
I believe such basic training can be provided at a relatively low cost and with effectiveness and easy administration using distance learning technologies over the Internet. One of the key challenges of training and educating parents or involving them in their children’s learning is the logistical challenge of physically gathering parents for “live learning”. Basic training in literacy can be affordably provided individually and at each learner’s individual pace via online delivery.
In my observation, professional educators are quick to recognize parents’ tendency to “leave it to schools” to educate their children, but less quick to recognize that almost nothing of society’s and taxpayers’ funds aimed at schooling are shared with parents as co-educators of their children. Schools operate with dollars, and schooling happens because resources are expended. But out of every $100.00 of public funds budgeted for children’s schooling, only about one penny (or a miniscule 1% of 1%) can be identified as specifically directed toward parent training of any meaningful kind as co-educators of their children.
As long as professional schoolers keep to themselves 99.99% of public education funding, then responsibility for the success of children’s schooling must reside 99.99% with them, as well. And I believe shortcomings in children’s literacy and learning reveal the error in such reliance, and the problem of such absence of meaningful sharing with parents for their own training and skilled participation.
If meaningful gains are to be made in early literacy, meaningful dollars must be shared with parents in effectively training them (via online distance learning tools) as co-educators of their children, in the model of the valuable training that Calgary Reads shares with its volunteers.
Thank you.
Gordon L. Otto
Barrister & Solicitor
Calgary, Alberta
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