Skip to main content
Skip to main content
Florida Learning Disabilities Research Center


young boy reading

Homelife Relates to Early Reading Abilities

By: Daniel J. Dunleavy

For some children, reading starts in the first years of elementary school. For others, at a daycare or a local library. Still others begin reading earlier, at home with their family. Researchers know that early exposure to books and other reading materials is important for literacy and language development and that mastery at a young age leads toward future academic success. However, more nuanced questions still remain. For example, do the number of books in the home impact a child’s vocabulary? How about how often a parent reads to their child? Or the number of times a month the child visits a library? And how do these factors, what can be called the “home literacy environment”, vary across families from different economic classes?

In a recent study, a group of researchers at Florida State University sought to answer these sorts of questions. Led by Pamela Burris, a doctoral candidate in the Learning and Cognition Program in the Department of Educational Psychology and Learning Systems, the group sought to investigate the relationship between home literacy environment, among families with low socioeconomic status (SES), and children’s early literacy skills; such as knowledge of letter names and vocabulary.

The study relied on data collected between 1999 and 2002 from parents of children enrolled in one of seven Head Start programs in the southeast U.S. In total, the researchers analyzed data from 256 parents, of whom were mostly mothers (94% of respondents), living in a household with an average income of approximately $12,486 (below the poverty threshold for a family of four [$17,050]). The parents represented in the study were predominantly African American (93%) and had a child approximately four years old (the average age of the child in this study was 48.39 months).

The researchers used a variety of tools to measure factors about the home literacy environment and children’s literacy skills. For instance, surveyed parents were asked to self-report how often they or another member of the household read to the child, how many times a month the child was taken to a library, the age parents first began reading to the child, and the number of picture books in the home. Parents also identified familiar storybook names from a list of real and fake book titles. Together, these questions gave researchers a sense about the general home literacy environments of families in the study.

Factors about the family, household, and home environment were used to explore hypotheses about their relationship to children’s literacy outcomes. The researchers found that, in general, the home literacy environment is associated with children’s language and literacy skills. With that being said, among low SES families, the home literacy environment can vary greatly. Further, the type of questions used by researchers to assess home literacy can impact the results of a study.

The researchers also found that the number of books said to be in the home predicted children's receptive vocabulary, that is, a child’s ability to understand a word when seeing or hearing it. The parents' ability to identify storybook titles predicted children's expressive vocabulary (i.e., their ability to produce an accurate word given a picture of an item). Additionally, the results suggested that the number of library visits was not predictive of any literacy outcomes in the study; though they hypothesize that this may be due to the fact that, on average, children in this study visited the library at a lower rate than in other studies.

The results of this study bring us closer to answering the original questions posed above and builds upon existing research. At least for the families in this study, the number of books in the home appears to be linked to children’s vocabulary. The number of times a month a child visits the library was unrelated to literacy outcomes. Future studies have been proposed to explore if the results will repeat in other sets of families and to answer remaining questions, such as, “What factors beyond income and parental education impact the home literacy environment?” and “How does parental interest in reading impact parental participation in reading to the child?”.

Citation: Burris, P. W., Phillips, B. M., & Lonigan, C. J. (2019). Examining the relations of the home literacy environments of families of low SES with children’s early literacy skills. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk (JESPAR), 24(2), 154-173.