Children’s reading better if parents believe they can – and help well

Photo: Hillarie. Creative Commons.

Funding parental support for reading is more cost-effective than funding classroom support – and is particularly beneficial for boys.

Many parents underestimate their children’s reading potential. It’s not unusual for them to say: “My boy’s not that good at reading, and that’s the way he is.” So they’re less inclined to make an effort to read with their children. They tend to believe that it won’t help much, that their children’s skills and abilities are fixed.

This “fixed mind-set” is mistaken. Children who read more get better at it, whether or not they are good at the outset. Furthermore, our research shows particular improvement among children whose parents have this mind-set, if they are offered advice on the benefits of helping and a concrete way to support the child. In these cases, children can make significant progress in both reading and writing. The improvements are at least as significant as those achieved through methods that support classroom learning. They’re also a lot less expensive, which suggests that educators should reconsider how they spend their funds on reading support.

Our findings raise many fascinating possibilities that are currently the subject of further research. First, might the same problem of parental underestimation apply to other basic skills, such as numeracy? If so, could encouragement of more positive attitudes and giving parents straightforward ways to help their children be similarly cost-effective in improving children’s mathematical skills?

Poorer children benefited

“The biggest improvements were for children whose parents had previously strongly underestimated their capacity to read better.”

Our insights may also begin to offer what the social sciences value highly – new ways to reduce the impact that socioeconomic status typically imposes on children’s achievement. We know that poverty is linked to lower expectations of children’s performance. Our findings show that with the right supports, parents with such low expectations can be helped to bring about significant improvements in their children’s educational outcomes. The improvements we identified were found even among poorer parents and immigrants.

Talking about reading

Our randomised trial involved 1,587 children aged 8 to 9 from 72 classrooms in Denmark. We gave parents a booklet and access to an online video explaining that their child’s reading ability could be improved, whether the child was already good or bad at reading.

Second grade is when children typically start to read for themselves, making the leap from decoding single words to comprehending text and relating it to their own lives. Parents talking with their children about a book before, during, and after reading can be a way to help them shift from decoding to proper understanding.

That’s why, for our study, we used what’s called a “dialogical reading model”. We provided some books and specific guidance on how to talk about books with children in a constructive and positive manner. So, for example, before children began the first page, parents encouraged them to read the front title and the back cover to gain an overview. Then they helped with difficult words as the children read. Once children had finished, parents were advised to talk to them about what they had read and how it related to their lives. We recommended that parents praise the children’s effort, rather than performance or results.

boy reading
Photo: Ann Fisher. Creative Commons.

Largest reading gains among underestimated children

We found that such involvement was associated with the biggest changes among children whose parents had previously strongly underestimated their capacity to read better. During the two-month experiment, the reading age of such children improved by six months, compared to a four-month average improvement for all children in the study. Their writing also got better. Meanwhile, the control group, not subject to the programme, gained two months in reading age, as one would have expected.

Our data don’t allow us to separate fully the effect of shifting parental mind-sets from the effect of reading support strategies. However, our findings clearly show that the biggest impact was on children whose parents had most underestimated their potential to get better at reading.

We also found that the rate of reading improvement tailed off about seven months after the experiment began. This suggests that support for parents’ positive attitudes – and the provision of reading strategies – may need to be strengthened over time to ensure that they sustain their efforts.

Approach is good value for money

“A similar approach might work to enhance children’s numeracy and social and emotional skills. We’re designing studies to examine this question.”

Engaging parents to directly support children’s reading is much cheaper than increasing the time children spend with teachers in school. We have run randomised trials that increased children’s lessons and the numbers of co-teachers in the classroom. These changes had effects of similar magnitude on reading skills but cost at least twice as much.

We suspect that a similar approach might work to enhance children’s numeracy and social and emotional skills. Parents’ views of their children’s reading potential may reflect more deep-seated attitudes about their skills in general. We are designing studies to examine this question.

Our researchers are also trying to assess how parents from different socioeconomic backgrounds may underestimate the effects of spending time with their children. Our studies so far suggest that people from lower socioeconomic groups don’t fully appreciate the positive impact that they could have on their children’s educational achievement. We are looking for ways to reverse this underestimation, so that children enjoy more positive support in learning. This work may help to alter the strong relationship between parent’s poorer educational background and children’s lower educational achievements.

It’s also worth noting that the reading improvements children gained in our study were more pronounced for boys than girls. This may reflect the fact that the boys generally performed worse at the outset, leaving more room for improvement. However, it may also be that parents are more inclined to underestimate boys’ reading potential. If so, reversing this inclination could prove particularly fruitful for increasing boys’ achievement.

Policy Implications

Governments should invest in programs that support parents in reading with their children.

Practical Implications

Teachers should support parents in reading with their children.

Simon Calmar Andersen

Simon Calmar Andersen

Professor at the Department of Political Science and Director of TrygFonden's Centre for Child Research at Aarhus University, Denmark.

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Original research and references

  1. Andersen SC & Nielsen HS Reading intervention with a growth mindset approach improves children’s skills Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (PNAS), 113.43, October 2016