Learning activities at home in the early years of a child’s life make an important difference to their achievement in school. Katalin Toth and Pam Sammons outline the evidence
The home learning environment (HLE) refers to the activities that parents carry out with their children in order to encourage learning. In the early years this might include reading to their child, supporting learning through play, taking the child to the library, or teaching rhymes and songs.
A stimulating HLE in the early years of a child’s life can provide them with a better start to school, as well as having a long-term positive impact on their academic attainment, progress, and learning behaviour (self-regulation) up to age 16.
|What we know|
|● The early years HLE has a long-term positive impact on children’s academic attainment, progress, and self-regulation up to age 16.
● Although linked with socio-economic status and parents’ qualifications, the early years HLE has a strong independent effect in shaping educational outcomes.
● Other measures of the HLE also show an influence.
● Enrichment activities measured at age 14 are particularly beneficial.
The EPPSE 3–16 project
The Effective Pre-school Primary and Secondary School Education project (EPPSE 3–16+) is a large-scale, longitudinal study that was commissioned by the English Department for Education in 1996. It followed 3,000 children from age 3 to age 16.
The study was designed to investigate the influence of preschool and later school experiences in promoting young children’s cognitive and social development during preschool (age 3–5), primary school (age 5–11), and on into adolescence in secondary school (age 11–16). Detailed data were collected on individual child, family, neighbourhood, and school characteristics at key points in the children’s educational careers.
Measures of HLE were created based on the responses of parents (and later also from children) on four occasions: at entry to the study (age 3+) and at the end of Year 2 (age 7), Year 6 (age 11), and Year 9 (age 14).
- The overall indicator of early years HLE reflected activities such as teaching the child the alphabet, playing with letters and numbers, library visits, reading to the child, and teaching songs or nursery rhymes.
- At age 7 and 11, parents reported on the frequency of activities such as: reading to/with the child; taking the child out on educational visits; computing activities and internet usage; sport activities and dancing; and teaching the child different subjects.
- As the children became older and more independent, their views were also integrated in the measures of HLE. At age 14, they responded to questions on the frequency of internet use, reading on their own, going on educational visits, and on their parents’ supervision of homework. Parents also reported on the educational support they provided, and their interest in secondary education.
We aggregated the specific items in broader HLE dimensions, and then tested their relationships with measures of academic attainment and social-behavioural outcomes at different ages.
Patterns in HLE across time
Parents who were involved in early learning activities with their children continued to provide more stimulating home learning opportunities as children grew older, being more engaged in enrichment activities during primary school and interactive learning activities during secondary school. Thus, parents who had interacted with their seven-year-olds on a one-to-one basis in activities, like reading or listening to them reading, were more likely to help them with a school subject and join the child during games or play when the child was 11. Similarly, such parents were also more likely to show an interest in their child’s schooling by talking about school experiences and work at age 14.
Although parents’ educational qualifications and socio-economic status were associated with the early years HLE, the relationships were only modest; some poorer parents who lacked qualifications still provided a stimulating HLE.
HLE influence on academic attainment and learning
During the 17 years of the study, we showed that different measures of HLE were strong predictors of both children’s academic attainment and progress in preschool and into primary and secondary education, above and beyond their individual (gender or birth weight) and family (income, socio-economic status, eligibility for free school meals, etc) characteristics. We call this a net impact/effect. We also found that the early years HLE shaped social behaviour, particularly self-regulation, which supports learning.
Young children whose parents taught them the alphabet by drawing attention to letters in books, food labels, or other written materials had significantly better attainment in language, pre-reading, and early number concepts when starting primary school than did classmates whose parents never taught them the alphabet. Positive net effects of teaching the alphabet were also found for Year 2 (age 6/7) reading and mathematics tests (slightly stronger for reading than for mathematics).
Likewise, children whose parents indicated that their child visited the library regularly during the preschool period showed better language scores at age five, and subsequent attainment in reading and mathematics at age seven. Children whose parents reported frequently teaching their child songs/poems/ nursery rhymes also showed better language scores and later mathematics attainment. Playing with letters or numbers had significant positive net effects on both pre-reading and outcomes for early number concepts.
We also tested the predictive power of the overall early years HLE index, especially in its relationship with language. We found that the net effect of a highly stimulating early years HLE was higher for language than that of family measures, such as mother’s qualification level and socio-economic status. We also found evidence for a strong long-term positive net impact of the early years HLE on children’s later outcomes, that lasted through Year 2 until Year 11 (age 15/16) for both English and mathematics. Overall, the net effects were strongest for English across time.
In addition to predicting better attainment, the early years HLE also influenced children’s academic progress during primary school, indicating that the gap increased between those who had a low – versus a high – score for their early years HLE.
The most important home learning activities measured at age 14 were identified from student surveys in Year 9. They were related to academic enrichment: for example, student reports of the extent to which they read on their own, went on educational visits, and visited the library. Medium and high levels of academic enrichment predicted significantly better attainment in English and mathematics in Years 9 and 11 (age 13/14 and 15/16).
The EPPSE research also found particular benefits of high-quality preschool provision in supporting better educational outcomes for children who lacked a stimulating early years HLE. While preschool supported all children, the quality of preschool mattered more for disadvantaged groups. A high-quality preschool experience can help to ameliorate the adverse effects of disadvantage, including a poor early years HLE.
The EPPSE research has demonstrated that the quality of the HLE, especially in the early years, is an important influence on children’s subsequent academic attainment and progress. There is some evidence that boys and disadvantaged children tend to have less stimulating early HLE experiences, and the quality of their preschool experiences may help to compensate for this.
These findings are important in informing policies intended to tackle the wide equity gap in achievement. The results point to the potential value of parental intervention programs that support parents in the early years. Our findings suggest that early intervention for the most disadvantaged families could have a positive longer-term impact on the children’s later educational outcomes. Early parental engagement may foster young children’s interest in learning, and help them make the most of their preschool and school experiences. The quality of the preschool experience is likely to be especially important for those disadvantaged children who do not have a stimulating early years HLE. Later on, enrichment activities also play an important role in promoting better academic outcomes. Finding ways to support adolescents who do not have such out-of-school experiences may also prove beneficial.
About the authors
Katalin Toth is a Research Officer at the Institute of Education, University of London. Her research interests are in educational inequity, disadvantaged families, and the home learning environment. She is serving as an analyst on the EPPSE project. Pam Sammons is a Professor of Education at the University of Oxford and a Senior Research Fellow of Jesus College, Oxford. She is a Principal Investigator on the EPPSE study and led the analyses of educational effectiveness.
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