"It is not easy, nor simple nor cheap to improve children’s early language skills"

This week we published the latest in a series of articles on shared reading in the early years, funded by the ESRC. For me, this work illustrates a crucial point: it is not easy, nor simple nor cheap to improve children’s early language skills simply by reading with them.

We ran a series of gold-standard RCTs that yielded null results. In Noble et al (2020) published today, we report no meaningful effect of dialogic & pause reading interventions (over an active reading control group) on language of English 2-year-olds.

In Davies et al (2020), published earlier this year, we report no meaningful effect of a parent-delivered intervention intended to promote 4-year-olds' oral inferencing skills during shared book-reading. And in Lingwood et al (2020a) we report no meaningful effect of a ‘real-world’ shared reading intervention on English 3-4 year olds’ language.

In fact, in a meta-analysis (Noble et al 2019), we report that “while there is an effect of shared reading on language development, this effect is smaller than reported in previous meta-analyses [...]  and is negligible in studies with active control groups”.

In most interventions, we *were* able to change parental behaviour; e.g. Noble et al (2020) reported that “caregivers from all socioeconomic backgrounds successfully adopted an interactive shared reading style”. It’s just this had no meaningful effect on children’s language.

Why is this? Well, put simply, it's because it is very difficult to engender substantial, lasting change in parental behaviour, and in children’s language, with short-term, inexpensive interventions lasting only a few weeks. For example, in Lingwood et al (2020b), we report on the barriers facing parents who want to take part in family-based education interventions. The stresses and strains of real life just get in the way.

It’s also important to understand the central role of enjoyment. Preece & Levy (2018), in a detailed interview study, shows that parents’ motivation to read is driven by whether there is clear evidence of the child’s enjoyment of reading.

However, they also show (in Levy, Hall & Preece 2018) that it isn’t necessary for parents to have a positive relationship with reading books themselves to enjoy shared reading with their children. What matters is the ‘construct’ of reading. And the role of reading in daily life - Hall, Levy & Preece, 2018:  "Endeavours to engage families with shared reading require a comprehensive understanding of family life and family practices and the role of shared reading within.”

All these studies were funded by an ESRC grant awarded to a group of researchers at the Universities of Liverpool, Sheffield, Leeds & Manchester. We have a few more papers to come from this grant. So watch this space.



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