New guidance on preparing for literacy

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has published its latest guidance report, Preparing for Literacy, which reviews the best available research to offer early years professionals practical “do’s and don’ts” to make sure all children start school with the foundations they need to read and write well.

The report considers how a wide range of different activities – like singing, storytelling and nursery rhymes – can help to develop children’s early reading. It offers seven recommendations designed to support early years professionals to improve the communication, language and early literacy skills of all their pupils – particularly those from disadvantaged homes. Previous analysis by the EEF found there was already a 4.3 month gap between poorer pupils and their classmates before school starts.

One of the recommendations focuses on parental engagement and the importance of supporting parents to understand how they can help in their child’s learning. It suggests that shared reading should be a central component for helping children to learn new words. The report also highlights the importance of high-quality interactions between adults and children to develop their communication and language skills. For example, early years professionals should make sure they talk with children – not just to them.

Source: Preparing for literacy: improving communication, language and literacy in the early years (June 2018), Education Endowment Foundation

The impact of wearing glasses on early literacy

In the previous issue of Best Evidence in Brief, we reported on a study  that showed how wearing glasses improved children’s reading. A similar study by Alison Bruce and colleagues (including the IEE’s Bette Chambers) looks at the impact of wearing glasses on children’s eyesight and early literacy in the UK.

Born in Bradford is a longitudinal study looking at the progress of a multi-ethnic birth cohort in the city of Bradford. From this cohort, 2,930 children underwent a vision screening test in their Reception year. The 432 children who failed the test were referred for follow-up (usually being prescribed glasses) and comprised the treatment group. A further 512 children who passed the sight test were chosen at random to make up the control group. All the children completed tests of literacy (Woodcock Reading Mastery Tests-Revised) and vocabulary (British Vocabulary Picture Scale) at school entry (Year 1) and after 12 months and 24 months. At the same time, researchers checked that the children were wearing their glasses.

The visual acuity of all children improved during the study, but those children who wore their glasses improved most and almost closed the gap on the control children. Letter identification scores declined by 1.5% for every one line reduction (on the LogMar sight chart) in visual acuity. The effect size of wearing glasses was +0.11. The results suggest that failure to wear glasses has implications for young children’s vision and education. Wearing glasses improves both visual acuity and has the potential to improve literacy.

Source: The effect of adherence to spectacle wear on early developing literacy: a longitudinal study based in a large multiethnic city, Bradford, UK (June 2018), BMJ Open

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