Family literacy sessions could boost learning

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has published findings from a new evaluation report of “Family Skills”, a programme that aims to improve the literacy and language of children learning English as an additional language.

A total of 115 primary schools in England took part in a randomised controlled trial of Family Skills. Over the course of one term, parents of four- and five-year-olds were offered weekly sessions with family learning tutors. The 2.5 hour sessions focused on topics like reading to children, phonics, making the most of bilingualism, learning through play and understanding primary education in England. Families were encouraged to do learning activities at home with their children, and were also given opportunities to visit a local library and take a tour of their child’s school.

The evaluation, conducted by the National Centre for Social Research, found that, overall, children of parents who were offered the Family Skills intervention did not make any more progress in literacy than children of parents who were not offered it (effect size = +0.01). However, the evaluation also suggests that children whose parents actually attended Family Skills sessions made greater progress in literacy than children whose parents did not. While the evaluators are cautious about this, it may indicate some potential if ways can be found to ensure more parents attend. The key challenge the evaluation highlighted is that some schools struggled to get parents to show up – only around one-third of eligible parents attended at least one session.

Source: Family Skills: evaluation report and executive summary (May 2018), Education Endowment Foundation

Getting a read on Ready to Learn media

Ready to Learn (RTL) is an initiative funded by the US Department of Education to promote school readiness among children aged two to eight, and most preschool children in the US are exposed to RTL media. Supporting early literacy has been one of RTL’s primary focus areas, and this meta-analysis published in Child Development examines the effect of RTL media exposure on young children’s literacy skills.

For this meta-analysis, Lisa B Hurwitz collected data from 45 evaluations involving more than 24,000 children. Overall, results indicate positive effects on children’s literacy (effect size = +0.21), equivalent to approximately 1.5 months of extra literacy learning. Effects were varied across literacy outcomes, with larger effect sizes for phonological concepts and vocabulary than for alphabet knowledge and narrative comprehension. Findings were fairly robust across a variety of research designs and across samples of children, although effects were consistently more pronounced in within-subjects designs and for preschool-age children.

Source: Getting a read on Ready to Learn media: a meta-analytic review of effects on literacy (February 2018), Child Development doi:10.1111/cdev.13043

Conversation more important than word exposure for literacy and language development

While it is common knowledge that talking to children helps them develop language and pre-literacy skills, new research from Harvard, MIT and the University of Pennsylvania shows that children gain greater language development and pre-literacy benefits the more that caregivers engage them in conversational turn-taking-like exchanges. In other words, talking with children is more beneficial than talking to children.

In the first study to link children’s language exposure to neural functioning, functional MRIs showed that children who experienced more frequent conversational turn-taking with caregivers while listening to stories demonstrated greater activity within the part of the brain in charge of language processing than children who didn’t interact in as many conversational exchanges. These same children also scored higher than their counterparts on standardised language assessments measuring vocabulary, grammar, and verbal reasoning. This was true regardless of children’s socioeconomic status or parental education.

Audio recordings of 36 four- to six-year-olds from various socioeconomic backgrounds measured the number of words children said, the number of words they heard and the number of conversational exchanges in which they engaged for two days. All children were native English speakers who did not significantly differ by behaviour, language exposure, or neural measures on standardised tests. When these measures were compared to the brain scans, researchers found a positive correlation between conversational turns and brain physiology.

Source: Beyond the 30-million-word gap: Children’s conversational exposure is associated with language-related brain function (February 2018), Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797617742725

Poor literacy skills hold poorer pupils back in science

A report, published by the Education Endowment Foundation and the Royal Society, has reviewed existing studies to identify interventions and teaching approaches that have a positive impact on pupil learning in science, particularly for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The researchers from the University of Oxford analysed data in the National Pupil Database in England to measure the extent of the gap in the performance between economically disadvantaged pupils and pupils from higher socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds on national science tests. This analysis confirmed that disadvantaged pupils (pupils who have been entitled to free school meals at least once in the last six years) had much lower scores and made poorer progress in science, at every stage of their school career, than pupils from higher SES backgrounds. The gap, they suggest, first becomes apparent at Key Stage 1 (ages 5–7) and only gets wider throughout primary and secondary school. The gap for science is as wide as it is in English and maths, and grows particularly strongly between the ages of 5–7 and 11–16.

The study also found that the strongest factor affecting pupils’ science scores was how well they understood written texts. According to the report, poor literacy skills affect how well a pupil is able to understand scientific vocabulary and to prepare scientific reports. This suggests that strategies to boost disadvantaged pupils’ reading comprehension could have a positive impact on their achievement in science too. The authors write: “In correlational studies of science learning, the strongest and most consistent predictor of pupils’ scientific attainment has undoubtedly been how literate they are”. They add that there is a “strong relationship” between pupils’ socioeconomic status and their literacy.

A study, which we covered in a previous edition of Best Evidence in Brief, found a similar relationship between literacy and science achievement gaps for pupils in US elementary and middle schools.

Source: Review of SES and science learning in formal educational settings: A report prepared for the EEF and the Royal Society (September 2017), Education Endowment Foundation and Royal Society

Children with reading difficulties may have undiagnosed hearing problems

A report published by the Nuffield Foundation, which compared a group of children with dyslexia to children with a history of repeated ear infections (otitis media with effusion, OME) to see if there were any similarities in their phonological and literacy difficulties, has found that their difficulties may be due in part to undiagnosed hearing problems.

Julia Carroll and Helen Breadmore compared a group of 36 children with dyslexia to 29 children with OME, and also to control groups of typically developing children of the same age and groups of younger children at the same reading level. This made a total sample size of 195 children, ages 8 to 10, from 20 schools in the UK. All of the children completed a series of tests to establish their reading and writing skills and also their phonological skills (ability to manipulate speech sounds) and morphological skills (knowledge of grammatical word structure). Eighteen months later, the children’s reading, spelling and phonological awareness was re-tested, and a hearing screening conducted.

The results showed that the children with dyslexia had different patterns of literacy difficulties than children with OME, although there were some overlaps. The children with dyslexia showed difficulties with both phonological and morphological skills, whereas children with OME had difficulties only on phonological tasks. Both dyslexic children and children with OME had lower levels of reading than the age-matched control children.

The results from the hearing screening eighteen months later found that 9 of the 36 children with dyslexia had mild or moderate hearing impairments, of which their parents and teachers were unaware. The researchers suggest, therefore, that children with reading difficulties should be screened for hearing problems so that they are able to receive more structured support that could help them improve their literacy skills.

Source: Morphological processing in children with phonological difficulties (October 2017), Coventry University and University of Warwick Briefing Paper for The Nuffield Foundation

Evaluation of Success for All

The Education Endowment Foundation recently published a report on the effectiveness trial of the Success for All (SFA) programme to evaluate its impact on the literacy outcomes of Reception pupils. SFA is a whole-school approach to improving literacy in primary schools. All teachers and senior leaders are involved, with the school receiving a total of 16 training and support days. Teachers receive pedagogical training – for example on effective phonics teaching – and teaching materials such as structured lesson plans. For the school leadership team, there is support in areas such as data management, ability grouping and parental engagement.

Fifty-four schools took part in this effectiveness trial, which was evaluated by Sarah Miller and colleagues from Queen’s University Belfast. Although the intervention was delivered on a whole-school basis, the evaluation focused only on the outcomes of 1,767 pupils starting in Reception, and followed them through to the end of Year 1.

The main analysis found that Reception pupils in SFA schools made more progress than pupils in control schools after two years (effect size = +0.07). The effect was slightly larger for pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM), compared to FSM pupils in control schools after two years (effect size = +0.12). In both cases, the effect was smaller than those found in previous evaluations (this is the third RCT of SFA to be conducted, and the first independent trial of the programme in England). Trials in the US reported effect sizes between +0.15 and +0.30. The report suggests that one possible reason for this was that some schools struggled to implement the programme as intended.

The project delivery team was from the University of York. Robert Slavin, director of the US Center for Research and Reform in Education, is Co-founder and Chairman of the Board of the Success for All Foundation.

Source: Success for All: Evaluation report and executive summary (July 2017), Education Endowment Foundation