Home learning for pre-schoolers 'does not make any difference'

10th September 2010 at 01:00
It's income and educational background that count in future attainment, study shows

Teaching children to recite the alphabet or play musical instruments before they start school has no impact on their educational attainment, according to research.

Parents who attempt to educate young children and even help them with homework have little effect on their literacy or social development, according to Dimitra Hartas of Warwick University.

The educational background and affluence of parents play a far greater role in their children's schooling than a willingness to help, Dr Hartas said.

Her findings are based on a survey of the parents of 15,600 children from across the country.

The parents, from a range of socio-economic backgrounds, were questioned first when their children were three years old, and again two years later. They were asked how often, and in what ways, they helped their children to learn.

Parents from all backgrounds helped their children with a series of early-learning activities: memorising the alphabet, singing with them, reciting nursery rhymes, telling stories and playing music.

Where relevant, they also helped their children with homework.

The number of parents who engaged in these activities either daily or several times a week was the same, regardless of wealth and social background.

However, willingness to offer such activities made no difference at all. "Children's language, literacy and social-emotional development were not affected by the frequency of home-learning activities," Dr Hartas said. "Whether parents engaged daily or once or twice a week with these activities did not make any substantive difference."

Instead, by the end of their first year in school, children's achievements tended to be directly related to their parents' wealth. Those pupils who came from more advantaged backgrounds were significantly outperforming poorer classmates.

But Sue Palmer, a literacy consultant and early-years specialist, insists that parents who teach their children rhymes or songs can influence school results.

"This research goes against all the received wisdom," she said.

"If very poor families sing to their children, read to their children, play with their children, those children will go on to do well at school. Nursery rhymes are free; families can get library books. Those are the things that matter."

Dr Hartas's findings were reported at the annual British Educational Research Association conference, which was held at Warwick University last week.

Dr Hartas also argued that the more money parents had to invest in educational equipment, the more likely they were to create a home environment conducive to learning.

By contrast, poorer families could find that home learning was limited by lack of resources.

"The quality of parent-child interactions and the closeness between home and school cultures play a significant part in making home learning effective," she said.

Children with better educated mothers also displayed greater literacy and social skills. Children whose parents had degree-level qualifications were an average of six months ahead of their peers with less educated parents.

This remained true regardless of how often the wealthier or better-educated parents helped their children to learn, according to the research.

Parents with higher levels of education were better equipped to develop their children's academic interests, making connections between the curriculum and everyday experiences, Dr Hartas said.

"Educated parents are likely to interact with their children in different ways, and may be more resilient and resourceful when dealing with economic adversity."

Poorer parents cannot be expected to compensate with enthusiasm for their lack of education or financial resources, she added.

"To approach parental involvement as the panacea for making up for the effects of economic inequality is overly simplistic and potentially misleading... holding them responsible for their children's academic and social difficulties."



Researchers have always insisted that there is a strong link between the type of upbringing that children have and how well they do at school.

A study of 3,000 children, published in 2008 by academics at London University's Institute of Education, found that the more often parents involved their children in activities such as reading, painting and drawing, singing songs and learning the alphabet, the better results the children would achieve at school.

This study concluded that such activities could have the same impact on children's achievement as a well-educated mother. There was no link between wealth and quality of parenting.

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