“Do you see the carrot?” is the wrong question to ask

Finding best practices supporting children’s language and literacy growth before school

What are the best indicators of children’s future school performance? Their ability to understand spoken language, communicate, understand thoughts and ideas, and display grammatical knowledge and skills. These literacy and language skills are crucial for children’s academic success. Interactions with parents at home provide the first opportunity for children to establish these fundamental skills.

A great deal is known about how language develops in young children. But, disadvantaged children tend to enter school with skills that fall behind those of their more advantaged peers. Attending school does not fully erase those gaps despite the fact that significant parts of kindergarten and primary school are focused on helping develop those skills. Parents can be trained to support their children’s literacy growth before they start school and during their early school years. Such parental support can help disadvantaged children start school on a more level playing field.

Reviewing programs to identify best practices

Over the past year, my colleague Jennifer Norvell and I have been working on a systematic review of just such parent-training-programs. So far, we have located over 100 high quality research studies conducted in the US, Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Asia. We think there are some innovative aspects of our systematic review that could identify best practices in parent-training-programs.

These innovations were developed as part of my work with the Consortium for Usable Research Evidence and capitalize on two things. First, some studies show better outcomes than others. Second, social interventions are not one-size-fits-all constructions; they are often made up of multiple components.

The programs in our review involve training parents to support their children’s language development through various programmatic elements, such as:

  • Teaching parents to use dialogic reading techniques during parent-child book reading, including defining new words and asking open-ended questions to get the child talking (“how did Peter Rabbit escape from Mr. McGregor?” vs. “do you see the carrot?”),
  • Teaching parents to use rhymes and other techniques to emphasize letter and word sounds, and stimulate the child’s use of language during conversations with them,
  • Teaching parents how to point out and emphasize environmental print (e.g., reading the words on a cereal box in the grocery store),
  • Combinations of these strategies.
Difference is the key to success

These elements are employed in different combinations and configurations across parent-training programs. So, two dialogic reading interventions may not be identical, even though both programs are called dialogic reading. Not only do the program elements differ, we have also found different ways of implementation.

The differences might be ways of training and supervising the individuals who train the parents; different locations (home vs. community center) for conducting the program; different ways of monitoring program delivery; different ways of engaging or encouraging parents to participate, etc. And, finally, we see a mix of families. Across the broad geographic range in the review, there are low income and high income families, immigrant families, language minority families, ethnic and racial minority families, majority families, and others. All of these issues can influence how effective a program is.

This complexity is exactly what we think can help inform evidence-based practice because we can use the variations across studies to identify the particular programs with the best outcomes. And, it’s not just that one particular program might work better than another, it’s that certain elements of programs, certain circumstances of implementation, and certain characteristics of the families in the studies may be associated with better outcomes.

For example, we may find that the programs focusing more on teaching parents how to ask questions and stimulate their child to talk are more effective than those programs that focus on defining new words. Or, programs where parents practice the techniques and receive feedback from trainers may be more effective than programs in which parents practice with each other or with their children.

Thus, it’s not just one particular program that works; it’s that there are a range of characteristics of programs and settings that may be associated with positive outcomes. Further, different families may benefit more or less from different characteristics of programs or programs implemented in different ways.

Finding the common elements that make the best strategy

We think that this new evidence coming out of our review will provide many more options for improving practice because providers of parent-training programs can create the best combination of techniques and strategies for their target parents based on evidence. A review like ours can start to isolate:

  • the common elements of effective programs,
  • the implementation strategies with the best chance of improving success,
  • whether different common elements or different implementation strategies are more or less effective for more or less disadvantaged families.

We expect that these common elements of effective programs may not all come from a single package or branded program. We might find that implementation strategies are equally if not more important than the particular configuration of program elements that make up a package. We are finishing up the review now and expect to be able to report what we have found later this year.

After that, our next step is to translate the work on the common elements of effective programs into practice guides. If information on the ingredients for a successful program was easily accessible, community agencies or other organizations could assess the extent to which their current investments in parent and family programs reflect effective programs. These practice guides will also provide them with ideas how to modify or augment their current programs in a way that’s aligned with the contexts and families they serve.

These ideas have been developed over my years of working with Mark Lipsey and, more recently, through my collaborations with Robyn Mildon at the Centre for Evidence and Implementation at Save the Children, Australia, Aron Shlonsky at the University of Melbourne, and Aaron Lyon at the University of Washington. We call this team the Consortium for Usable Research Evidence (or CURE).