Parent reading a child a book.

The important role of parent in children’s literacy development

Our home is our first place of learning, and our parents are our first teachers. Safety, kindness, patience and many other important skills are taught intuitively by parents across cultures and throughout time. Much of what we teach children is instinctive.

In addition to what comes naturally, mindful education at home can enrich more formal learning outside the home. Children spend more time at home than in school, and children who learn more outside of their school environment experience substantial intellectual growth.

Efforts by parents to develop literacy in their children’s earliest years can have a tremendous effect on their future success.

The impact of a parent’s literacy skills

Since literacy starts at home, a parent’s literacy levels directly correlate to a child’s academic success. In fact, according to the National Institute of Health, a mother’s reading skill is the greatest factor to affect her children’s future academic success, outweighing other factors, like neighbourhood and family income.

Parents who possess low literacy skills often lack the confidence to read to their children or help them with homework. Furthermore, since children often learn by example, a parent who doesn’t read can impact a child’s interest in reading. According to Scholastic’s Kids and Family Reading Report, parents’ reading habits play a large role in determining how often kids read; 57 per cent of kids who are frequent readers have parents who read books five to seven days per week, compared to only 15 per cent of kids who are infrequent readers.

Home: The building blocks of literacy

The foundation of literacy starts in infancy. Parents influence their children in all fundamental areas, including intellectual development.

Speech and language skills are crucial building blocks of literacy. It’s well-established that when babies receive more verbal communication from their parents, they strengthen their language processing and broaden their vocabularies.

When infants are spoken to frequently, they demonstrate accelerated brain development. As babies become familiar with the rules and rhythms of speech, they grow their linguistic abilities and broader intellectual capacity. Children who can recognize more words experience greater ease with early reading. On the other hand, children of low-literate parents are exposed to 30,000,000 fewer words and enter kindergarten with a much larger skills gap than their peers.

Bedtime stories and early reading proficiency

Exposure to books in children’s formative years closely correlates to early reading proficiency.

While it is long-established that reading to children is a crucial component of literacy development, it takes more than a book at bedtime to boost children’s reading capabilities. Storytime can help build vocabulary and imagination, but if would-be readers only look at pictures and listen to stories, impacts on literacy are limited.

Growing specific skills beyond simply reading aloud facilitates higher success with early literacy. Here are some helpful tips on how to boost literacy development when reading to children:

  • Point to the words: This early literacy approach helps young learners to build connections between text, pictures and stories. It also develops an early reader’s ability to follow along with sentences and builds familiarity with processing narrative.
  • Make it fun: Keeping kids engaged by reading with enthusiasm establishes story time as more than a comforting sleep aid. Funny voices, dramatic pauses and sound effects make a child’s reading experience more exciting. If animated reading is too stimulating at bedtime, try incorporating a livelier story time earlier in the day.
  • Pause to explain: Checking in with kids to see if they’re following along with a story is a valuable part of keeping them engaged. If a plot gets complicated or you encounter an uncommon word, pause the story to ask if they understand. When children feel comfortable interrupting while being read to, it empowers them to take more responsibility over their reading comprehension and learning.
  • Connect reading to writing: Promoting curiosity about the text in books is a powerful gateway to establishing early writing abilities. Ask children to pick a fun word in the story and practice writing it down. For younger children who aren’t yet developing their writing skills, have them dictate words, sentences or a simple story to you. Engaging kids with the creative side of writing is a great way to foster a love of literacy.
  • Ask questions: Reading is, fundamentally, a way to share information. Whether a story provides simple entertainment or communicates broader themes, books are full of ideas and details to discuss. Emphasizing the parts of the story not seen in the pictures can help build the imagination and abstract thinking skills required of more advanced readers. Taking time to ponder a book after you’ve read together further instils the value of the reading experience.

Literacy: The seeds of academic success

Academic achievement is deeply rooted in literacy. Nearly every school subject requires various degrees of literacy to complete its curriculum.

While help with homework may be the first thought of parents looking to give their children an academic boost, building literacy is the most foundational way to support their accomplishments. With robust tools to read, write and verbally communicate, children engage with learning materials in deeper and more meaningful ways.

When children build strong literacy skills, they develop critical thinking, communication, verbal reasoning and many other strengths. These life-long tools make navigating the world easier from childhood through to adulthood. Children with broader vocabularies have better ability to express their needs and advocate for themselves and others.

Parents who plant the seeds of literacy by talking extensively with their babies and reading mindfully with their children are paving the way for future success. When parents promote literacy in the home from an early age, children develop the tools to thrive in the outside world in countless ways.

ABC Life Literacy Canada offers a number of family literacy resources, including our Family Literacy First program. The free program offers early literacy activities in different languages, including English, French, Simplified Chinese, Tagalog and Arabic, so families can learn together in their first language or a second or third language. Learn more about this program and our countless other literacy resources by visiting our website.