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.