Promoting language development via shared reading


The most cost-effective way to tackle the root causes of many social and educational problems is to intervene early in children's lives, before the problems have had a chance to entrench. Key to this strategy is improving children's language development in the early years. Children who enter school with good language skills have better chances in school, better chances of entering higher education, and better economic success in adulthood.

Reading is very effective at boosting children's language. Children who read regularly with their parents or carers tend to learn language faster, enter school with a larger vocabulary of words and become more successful readers in school. Because of this, local authorities often commission services to promote family-based shared book reading (e.g. the Bookstart programme). 

However, recent studies suggest that shared book reading interventions work less effectively for children from disadvantaged backgrounds than originally thought, particularly when their parents have lower levels of education. This means that there is a danger that the benefits of shared reading will be restricted to children from more affluent homes and not get through to those who need them most. 

To solve this problem, we need to develop a better understanding of how reading interventions work, and of how parents use them. We need to identify what parents do and say when reading aloud with their children and why this makes reading so effective at boosting children's language. We need to find out whether differences in how parents read mean that parents from disadvantaged backgrounds use these language boosting behaviours less frequently. We need to determine how to design interventions that increase the use of these behaviours in all parents, especially those with lower levels of education. Then, once we have identified how reading interventions work, we need to determine how to help parents use them successfully in their daily lives. 

The aim of this project is to determine how shared reading promotes child language development, and use this knowledge to make it an effective language boosting tool for children from all social and economic backgrounds. In Work Package 1, we will identify what language boosting behaviours parents use in shared reading, and will determine how parents from different social/economic backgrounds use these behaviours during shared reading. In Work Package 2, we will create four targeted interventions, each focussed on a particular language boosting behavior, and investigate how they are implemented by parents from different backgrounds, and how they affect children's language development. In Work Package 3, we will explore what influences parents' decisions to read or not to read with their children, in order to work out why parents may be unwilling to read with their children and to identify how to make reading a more enjoyable experience. We will also evaluate the benefits of a new intervention, designed by national charity The Reader Organisation, to promote reading for pleasure. 
Across the project, we will study a range of language skills, covering the core language abilities that are essential for learning to read and write in school. We will produce one review article, 9 original research articles, 30 conference presentations, and activities for non-academic audiences at local and national level. We will also submit a Cochrane review on the effectiveness of shared reading interventions for language development. Our results will enable health professionals such as health visitors, early years educators such as nursery school teachers, and policy-makers in local and national government to design targeted, cost-effective interventions to improve the language of children between the ages of 0 and 5 years. The work addresses ESRC's strategic priorities Influencing Behaviour & Informing Interventions and A Vibrant & Fair Society.


Planned Impact

We will provide:

a. Empirical evidence about which language boosting behaviours parents use in shared reading.
b. Evidence-based advice about how to design shared reading interventions for children of different ages, different socio-economic status, and with and without identified speech, language and communication needs (SLCN).
c. Evidence-based information about what barriers prevent some parents from reading with their children.
d. Detailed evaluation of a shared reading intervention designed to promote reading for pleasure.

These will benefit:

1. Children & parents. Parents play a crucial role in their child's development, but are often unaware of the value of reading with their children or report that they do not know how to interact with them (Bercow, 2008). Our results, disseminated directly to parents, will provide easy-to-follow guidance about how to read with children to boost language development. 

2. 3rd sector groups that promote language and literacy, with the ultimate aim of improving literacy in the UK. We will provide the evidence-base they need for their work. For example, our data on why shared reading promotes language will inform the work of ICAN and The Communication Trust's Communication Ambassadors; a network of 400 volunteers who work with 8,000 families in the most disadvantaged areas of England, sharing information about how parents can best help their children learn language. 

3. The Reader Organisation, which will receive information about how to create an effective Get Into Reading (GIR) programme for families with preschool children.

4. Practitioners in early years education (e.g. Early Years Foundation Stage, Children's Centres). The UK government has extended free childcare places to 2-year-olds, recognising the critical importance of high quality early years education. Yet educators report that providing language-rich environments in busy early years settings is a challenge. We will provide concrete advice about how to create effective shared reading programmes and how to harness parental involvement to maximise the environment for language learning.

5. Practitioners in healthcare (e.g. health visitors, speech & language therapists, family nurse partnerships). Shared reading interventions for children with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) have the potential to be effective language boosting tools. However, how best to utilise them for children with low levels of language or with diagnosed language delay is as yet unclear. We will provide concrete advice about the effectiveness of these interventions with a) children at different ages, b) children from different socio-economic backgrounds, and c) children with identified SLCN. 

6. Policy-makers and commissioners tasked with improving the life-chances of UK children (e.g. Local Authorities, Public Health England). The preschool years are increasingly recognised as being crucial in determining a child's later life-chances, with early interventions yielding substantial savings to the UK's economy (Grint & Holt, 2011:£40 million invested in early parenting interventions could save £400 million over a 15 year period). However, commissioners and policy-makers need a sound evidence-base that they can use to design and evaluate cost-effective early interventions (e.g. What Works databases). We will provide the evidence needed to a) design and evaluate shared reading interventions to promote language growth, b) design effective interventions to remove the barriers to shared reading that face many parents.

In this way, our work will directly address UKRC's typology of research impacts:
a) increasing the effectiveness of public services and policy (short, medium and long term).
b) enhancing educational achievement, and thus quality of life, of UK children (medium and long term).
c) fostering the economic competitiveness of the United Kingdom (long term).

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