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The parent factor in student performance (OECD)

It sounds like a headline from the Daily Stands-back-in-amazement: the BBC education news desk reported yesterday that an OECD study has discovered there is ‘a strong link between teenage reading skills and early parental help’. Hmmm, you’re very likely calling to mind John Cleese’s ‘stating the bleeding obvious’ remark!

Graeme Paton in the Telegraph has also picked up the story today, which he’s chosen to headline as ‘Reading with parents “improves children’s exams results”’. I imagine it gets parents’ attention more effectively that the OECD’s rather more muted ‘Reading to children has long-term impact’!
OECD studies are well conducted and are therefore worth considering. In this case, the research indicates that, even when social differences are taken into consideration, children who are supported by their parents in the early years, ‘were six months ahead in reading levels at the age of fifteen’.
The study also highlights the importance of talk at home. Interestingly, the report also suggests that parents don’t have to be well educated to be able to make a difference. Simply reading to children several times a week seems to make a difference. This chimes well with research done in the USA by Betty Hart and Todd Risley, (see here) which showed that the amount of talk given by a care-giver to their child, crucially in the first three years, correlated very highly with the child’s future academic success. And, it wasn’t the quality of the talk that was so important; it was the sheer quantity that made the difference.
However, certain other important questions remain. What constitutes parental support? Does this mean that parents merely read to their children? Does it mean that parents read with their children – the children reading what they can and the parents helping out when the children reached the limits of their abilities? Does it mean that parents actively taught their children to decode and then went on to engage their children in reading books which were commensurate with what they had taught, in terms of skills, concepts and knowledge about the code? How about the differences in ease with which some languages are encoded and decoded? All of these are pertinent questions and often obscure what is meant by the term ‘supporting children’s reading’.
Unless we operationalise the terminology we use, it’s not clear what important issues are being (sometimes deliberately!) elided.

4 thoughts on “The parent factor in student performance (OECD)

  1. If I recall the Hart-Risley study accurately, it's not quite true that quantity was the determinant and quality didn't matter.

    They found that the type of feedback the child received from the parent was hugely important. The "welfare" families tended not only to use fewer words, but to use a much higher ratio of negative to positive responses to the child's speech and behaviour. Also, they rarely elaborated on or extended the child's utternace.

    The "professional" families would respond to a small child, pointing at a cat and saying "doggy" with something like, "Yes, that DOES look a little like a doggie. It has four legs and fur. But see, the nose and ears are different…" (or some other detail). This type of elaboration not only extended children's vocabulary, but also enhanced their conceptual development and stretched their sentence structure.

    If you aren't familiar with it already, you will want to read Ernst L. Moerk's The Guided Acquisition of First Language Skills. It's an excellent companion piece to the Hart and Risley work.

  2. Fair dos, Susan and thank you for your comment.
    Truth be told I've long wanted to provide a more extensive summary of Hart and Risley's findings. They deserve to be constantly under people’s attention.
    After eliminating gender and race, the most influential factor they found was, as you suggest, SES, which was strongly 'associated' with mother's occupation, the educational level of the 'household' and with 'reported family income'.
    What they also said was that 'the most important difference among families was in the amount of talking that went on. Because the richness of the quality features in utterances addressed to children during everyday parenting varied so little among the families, increased amounts of talking provided some children vastly more experience with nearly every quality feature of language and interaction' (p.192).
    In addition, they saw that 'no special training or advanced education was necessary, only an adult model and the child's own experience with the interactional style transmitted across generations' (p.91).
    Having said that, they do also point to various other things, such as the quality of adult mediation: elaboration, restatement, providing (reading) vocabulary well beyond children's comprehension, feedback and so on.
    I haven't read Moerk's book. Thanks for the tip. I’ll be sure to get a copy.
    By the way, over the summer, I did read Hollingsworth, J. and Ybarra, S., (2009), Explicit Direct Instruction and have already made a few very useful additions to our Sounds-Write lessons. Thanks.

  3. Susan,
    Thank you again for the tip about Moerk's work. My copy arrived today and I'm ploughing through the first chapter. So far, so exciting!

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