reading aloud to primary pupils has minimal effect on their literacy skills, a wide-ranging study has shown.
Contrary to popular perception, the reading ability of less able pupils does not improve significantly if they are read to by adults. Instead, children benefit most when adults listen to them reading, researchers have discovered.
And ostensibly educational activities, such as extensive use of a home computer, do not always contribute directly to children's educational development.
Researchers observed 3,000 pupils from 800 primaries across England as part of a study to examine the effects of home-based learning on children's educational outcomes at age seven.
The team, led by Kathy Sylva, professor of educational psychology at Oxford University, observed the educational support that key stage 1 pupils received from their parents at home, as well as children's activities with their peers. The effects of this home-based learning were examined alongside those of formal education.
In particular, researchers wanted to see how home learning affected the pupils' attainment in maths, reading and behaviour.
They found that home computing did not have the expected impact on maths attainment. Though moderate use of a home computer did have a positive effect on maths ability, this did not increase with greater use: too much time spent staring at the screen was shown to be as unconstructive as too little computing time.
Reading was boosted by one-to-one with parents, both in reading itself and other shared activities. But less able readers benefited most when their parents listened, rather than read to them.
Professor Sylva said she did not think that reading to children was a waste of time. It was important for bonding, social and motivational reasons, she said.
"However, by the time children are seven," she said "the most important way of developing their reading is to listen to them read. That is where the skill development comes from, especially when children are reading very poorly.
"There is a school of thought that if you have a struggling reader you should expose them to a rich variety of language, read to them, get them interested and help them develop a love of books. That is not enough.
Really listening to them read is more important."
Professor Sylva said it was important for parents and teachers to observe when children become more independent, and allow them to read for themselves, rather than reading to them.
The study also found that expressive play, such as dressing-up and role-play, helped children's reading.
"High amounts of expressive play," says the report, "are different from computing, where too much computing was related to worse outcomes ... Too much expressive play is not related to lower reading scores."
But there was a limit to the helpfulness of play: large amounts of playtime were not more beneficial than a moderate amount of play. Expressive play was also one of only two factors found to contribute to positive social behaviour, along with one-to-one parent-child interaction. These factors were directly related to improvements in behaviour: the more one-to-one interaction and expressive playtime a child had, the better the child was likely to behave.
The findings also suggested a link between language acquisition and good behaviour. Language-rich activities such as reading to the child, listening to the child read and adult-child play all contributed to better social ability.
Notably, the only home-based activity that consistently contributed to all forms of children's development was one-to-one interaction between parent and child. In fact, the more the better. The researchers said: "You cannot have too much of a good thing."
* The Relationship Between the Home Learning Environment and Education Outcomes at age 7, firstname.lastname@example.org