The development of emergent literacy skills in early childhood is best conceptualised as a continuum that occurs prior to entry into formal schooling and formal instruction. Thus, the family literacy environment and the activities that parents engage their children in can play a critical role in the development of these skills (Evans et al., 2000; Sénéchal and LeFevre, 2002; Burgess et al., 2002; Carpentieri et al., 2011). Emergent literacy encompasses skills such as print concepts, alphabet knowledge, phonological awareness, and oral language (Whitehurst and Lonigan, 1998; Phillips et al., 2008). Alphabet knowledge and phonological awareness at entry into school have in particular been found to be strong predictors of decoding and future success with reading acquisition (Lonigan et al., 2000; Savage et al., 2001). While emergent literacy skills are highly inter-related (Lonigan et al., 2000), their acquisition is variable and appears to depend, in part, on early literacy experiences in the home environment (e.g. Carpentieri et al., 2011). Thus, a better understanding is needed of the role of family literacy activities in fostering children’s emergent literacy at school entry, given its association with  subsequent reading acquisition. The overall objective of the current study was to identify whether specific family literacy activities predicted children’s emergent literacy skills at entry into formal schooling. Further, the study aimed to identify which activities were the best predictors of specific skills.

Methods

This study included data from eighty-seven children attending Junior Kindergarten and their families sampled from eleven different schools located in low-income neighbourhoods in Toronto, Canada (median neighbourhood income ranged from $12, 401- $28, 953; Statistics Canada, 2011). Junior Kindergarten is an optional additional year in the formal education system in Ontario, Canada. Children are eligible to enroll at four years of age. Initial recruitment resulted in 106 children that had returned the written parental consent form. Of these, 105 met the eligibility criteria (i.e., having scored within 1.5 standard deviations of the mean on the measure of non-verbal IQ), and eighty-seven completed and returned the family literacy questionnaire. All 87 children gave verbal assent prior to the assessments. Sample characteristics are provided in Table 1. Data were collected in schools using a battery of standardised assessments and a parent questionnaire. The assessment battery included: the Wide Range Achievement Test- Early Reading Assessment (Robertson, 2003), the Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing (Wagner et al., 1999), the Expressive One-Word Picture Vocabulary (Brownell, 2000) and the Columbia Mental Maturity Scale (Burgemeister et al., 1972). A family literacy questionnaire, adapted  from Boudreau’s (2005) parent questionnaire, was sent home and assessed three different areas of early literacy, including the child’s interaction with storybooks, interaction with writing activities and interaction with letter/sound activities.

Results

First, a series of bivariate correlations among the three family literacy subscales, children’s alphabet knowledge, phonological awareness, expressive language and nonverbal IQ were conducted and are presented in Table 2. As a result of the statistically significant associations observed in Table 2 between engagement in letter/sound activities and alphabet knowledge and additionally between shared storybook reading and expressive language ability, two separate hierarchical multiple regression analyses were conducted using alphabet knowledge and expressive language respectively, as outcome variables. Due to the multicultural composition characteristic of Toronto communities, in addition to the strong association between cognition, language, and literacy, we also controlled for children’s exposure to a second language and their non-verbal cognitive ability in our regression analyses. The results of the first multiple regression indicated that higher frequencies of interactions with letter/sound activities in the home accounted for a significant amount of unique variance (i.e., eight percent) in predicting children’s alphabet knowledge at entry to Junior Kindergarten after controlling for children’s nonverbal IQ and second language exposure, R2 = .21, F(1, 84) = 8.83, p < .01, which is a modest effect. The results of the second multiple regression revealed no significant association between parent-child storybook activities and children’s English expressive vocabulary at entry to Junior Kindergarten after controlling for non-verbal IQ and second language exposure, R2 = .35, F(1, 84) = 1.40, p = ns

Discussion

In the current study we examined the contributions of three specific family literacy activities towards children’s emergent literacy skills (i.e., interactions with alphabet knowledge, phonological awareness, and expressive language). We looked at potential impacts of both direct teaching (e.g., interactions with writing and letter/sound activities) and indirect facilitation (e.g., storybook reading) and their impact on children’s emergent literacy skills at entry to formal schooling using a sample of junior kindergartens from low SES neighbourhoods. The results revealed that direct teaching of letter/sounds in the home contributed eight percent of unique variance in children’s alphabet knowledge after controlling for non-verbal IQ and second language exposure. These results are in line with previous study findings that ranged from seven to twenty-four percent of the explained variance (Sénéchal et al., 1998; Evans et al., 2000; Sénéchal and LeFevre, 2002; Kirby and Hogan, 2008; Hindman and Morrison, 2012). No other statistically significant associations were found. These results then suggest that in the current sample, parents’ engagement in letter/sound activities in the home helped to build children’s alphabet knowledge prior to entry into formal schooling.

There has been recent attention to the importance of school readiness in Ireland, which encompasses a holistic view of the child’s development including preacademic skills such as letter and numeracy knowledge (Mhathúna et al., 2015). These pre-academic skills that children enter into the schooling system with, may play an important role in the ease of transition from home to school life and towards children’s long-term academic success (Forget-Dubois et al., 2007). That parents can engage their children in particular types of activities to better prepare them for the classroom and success within the classroom environment has implications for knowledge dissemination.

These results reflect data gathered within a Canadian setting however the findings are particularly salient in an Irish context given that reports suggest primary classes in Ireland are among the second largest across Europe, only slightly behind the UK with an average of 25 students per class. Larger class sizes typically result in less individualized attention as a result of a larger teacher to student ratio. Thus, if parents can better equip children with early foundational skills such as alphabet knowledge, this may place their children at an advantage in the early academic years.

Engagement in  letter/sound activities was one of the most frequent parent-reported family literacy activities in the current sample. Parents reported on average, that interactions with letter/sounds occurred daily. This suggests that it is not only engagement in an activity that helps the child to acquire and consolidate specific skills, but also a higher frequency of the activity which can result in desired beneficial effects. Theoretically, this finding is important because children who enter into formal schooling with knowledge of letters have a stronger foundation for learning letter-sound correspondence and phonological awareness skills, which have been found to be among the strongest predictors of decoding ability over time (Lonigan et al., 2000; Ehri et al., 2001; Savage et al., 2005; Savage, Carless, & Ferraro, 2007). The literature often shows that children from more disadvantaged backgrounds seemingly lag behind their more advantaged peers across multiple domains of development including literacy development (Lee & Burkam, 2002). These results are then promising given that the children and families in the current study were sampled from low SES neighbourhoods and positive effects of direct parental teaching on alphabet knowledge at entry to school were supported.

While no significant association was found with respect to storybook reading and expressive language outcomes, this may have in part been the result of our sample characteristics in combination with the study design. More specifically, many children who took part in the study were exposed to a second language in the home resulting in the possibility that the shared storybook activities were conducted in a language other than English. No information regarding the language in which parents read to their children was collected. However, children were assessed on their expressive  language in English only. If the storybook reading were done in a language other than English, we would not necessarily expect to find an effect on English language outcomes. Therefore this insignificant finding should be evaluated with caution, as previous studies would support the benefits of shared storybook reading on children’s oral language development (e.g., Sénéchal et al., 1998).

We also found no significant effect on phonological awareness outcomes however this may have been due to floor effects on phonological awareness measures and consequently minimal variability in the children’s data. Future studies are needed with respect to these latter two null findings before firm conclusions can be drawn. Overall, these results support the benefits of specific early family literacy activities that parents can engage in within the home environment to help support the development of children’s alphabet knowledge at entry into formal schooling.