Early predictors of literacy—what are they, and where do they lead?

Two large studies this month address early predictors of reading achievement.

In a study of 251 preschoolers, Puglisi et al. examined the impact of home literacy environment on child literacy outcomes. They found that the amount of storybook exposure at home in the early childhood years, alone, was not a major predictor of literacy outcomes at age 5 ½—important, because previous studies have led us to predict that it may be. Instead maternal language skill was the strongest predictor. Direct literacy instruction provided by the parents (that is, parents’ report of “…how often they taught their children to recognize letters, read words, and write words…”) was found to be a very small predictor as well. So this may mean that simply telling parents to “read more” may not be adequate to improve child literacy outcomes. Importantly, the authors note that, “…the measures of storybook exposure used in this study do not reflect the quality of parent–child interactions around storybooks,” and suggest that if quality were measured, results may differ. They posit that, “…much of what has traditionally been attributed to the home literacy environment may be a proxy for parental skills.”

In a study that extends to older children, Northrup pulls data from a large longitudinal study to examine, “…the differences between struggling readers who overcome their early difficulties and struggling readers who continue to have difficulties,” (n = 7746; kids followed from Kindergarten entry through 8th grade). Of the thousands of students who had low literacy performance at school entry, just over half of them caught up with peers in literacy achievement by 8th grade. They found that in Kindergarten in 1st grade, the “…students who begin with high-level skills continue to outpace and out-achieve their peers,” during that time, building their literacy skills faster than their lower-performing peers. However, by 3rd through 8th grade, there was a different pattern—low-performing students continued to steadily build their literacy skills, with some fully catching up to peers, but others never quite matching the skill level of the peers that started Kindergarten with good early literacy skills.

Factors associated with reading achievement across age groups included: “…household SES, a child’s approaches to learning, prior reading achievement… time spent reading at home and parental expectations of the child’s eventual educational attainment.” (Note that approaches to learning refers to, “… a student’s ability to pay attention, complete tasks, work independently, and follow classroom rules.”) Instructional practices that impacted achievement varied per grade level, with phonics and whole-language instruction mattering in Kindergarten, comprehension instruction mattering in 5th grade, and academic demand mattering in 8th grade.

Overall, this study provides evidence that, given the right instruction, “…struggling students continue to develop their reading skills…”. The authors state, “Although the majority of programs and policies target early readers… this suggests that even if students continue to struggle in reading in upper elementary and middle school, it is still worth the schools’ time and effort to invest in remedial instruction…” and that “…although child and home factors are important to the recovery of struggling readers, with appropriate intervention, schools and teachers can aid in the recovery and possibly even overcome social disadvantages that struggling readers often have.”

Northrop, L. (2017). Breaking the Cycle: Cumulative Disadvantage in Literacy. Reading Research Quarterly. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1002/rrq.195

Puglisi, M.L., Hulme, C., Hamilton, L.G., & Snowling, M.J. (2017). The Home Literacy Environment Is a Correlate, but Perhaps Not a Cause, of Variations in Children’s Language and Literacy Development. Scientific Studies of Reading. Advance online publication. doi:10.1080/10888438.2017.1346660