Having a parent with reading difficulties, known as family risk, puts a child at high risk of impaired emergent literacy before the onset of reading instruction, and later reading difficulties at school. Another line of research, however, highlights that environmental factors such as the quality and quantity of what parents provide at home (home literacy environment) are also crucial for the development of children’s emergent literacy and later literacy skills.
This thesis used a multi-factor perspective on reading difficulties to investigate the associations between family risk, emergent literacy, the home literacy environment at the onset of formal reading instruction and literacy skills after two years of schooling. Such a multi-factor perspective may combine a range of interplaying factors, including family risk along with early individual differences at the cognitive level (emergent literacy skills) and environmental factors (parents’ educational level and the home literacy environment) to assess the protective role of environmental factors against the risk factors such as family risk.
Data from ‘On Track’ project (på sporet) were used in analysis of three empirical studies. Children were individually assessed in emergent literacy at the onset of reading instruction. At this point, parents’ self-report of reading difficulties were used to index family risk, and the home literacy environment was measured through parental reporting. In addition, children were assessed in literacy measures including word reading, spelling and reading comprehension at the end of second grade.
The first study showed that children with family risk were significantly impaired on all measures of emergent literacy (letter knowledge and phonemic awareness), vocabulary, rapid automatized naming and short-term memory at the onset of formal reading instruction. A novelfinding was that a significant difference in emergent literacy within the group of children with family risk as apparent before the onset of reading instruction: Children with family risk who both of parents reported reading difficulties, had significantly poorer emergent literacy than both groups of children with only one parent reporting reading difficulties, and children with no family risk. Furthermore, family risk, in a multi-factor model, was significantly associated with children’s emergent literacy above and beyond the home literacy environment, the child’s gender, vocabulary, and the parents’ educational level.
The main aim of the second study was to investigate children’s reading difficulties in a multi-factor perspective after two years of formal schooling. Children who performed below the national threshold in at least two of the subtests in reading, spelling and comprehension were identified as having reading difficulties. The results revealed that children with family risk were three times more likely to develop reading difficulties than children without such a risk. The multi-factor model also suggested that children with family risk showed some difficulties in literacy skills that could not be explained in terms of individual differences in emergent literacy, vocabulary, gender, the home literacy environment or parents’ educational level.
The main aim of the third study was to investigate the role of protective environmental factors (e.g., home literacy environment and parents’ education) against the negative effect of family risk, in children’s emergent literacy skills at the onset of formal reading instruction. First, a model of home literacy environment was assessed and three distinct factors were identified: access to print, reading-related activities and parents’ reading interest and habits. In a structural equation model, maternal and paternal self-report of RD (as a proxy for family risk) along with their educational level were added as direct and indirect predictors of children’s emergent literacy while accounting for the home literacy environment. The results suggest that family risk explain some additional variance in emergent literacy that cannot be explained by parents’ educational level and the home literacy environment. However, and perhaps more importantly, this multi-factor model highlights a complex interplaying role for the relationship between family risk and environmental protective factors (the home literacy environment and parents’ education) in association with children’s emergent literacy skills. Therefore, the protective role of environmental factors on emergent literacy skills against the negative influence of family risk cannot be ruled out in children with family risk of reading difficulties.
Taken together, the findings presented in this thesis reveal that the association between family risk, children’s emergent literacy and their literacy skills is indeed a complex relationship, which involves with environmental factors. It seems that children’s emergent literacy and later literacy skills and their literacy experiences in the home environments may not be independent of family risk. However, a high parents’ educational level and a rich home literacy environment appear to operate as protective factors against a risk factor such as family risk. These findings suggest there are reasons to believe that it is possible to change and reduce the influence of family risk through environmental protective factors such as a rich home literacy environment.
Zahra Esmaeeli defended her thesis on June 22 2018 at the University of Stavanger. Esmaeeli has a Master's degree in speech therapy (Teheran Medical University) and special education (University of Oslo).