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Family Matters No. 36 - December 1993

Parental involvement in reading with children and television viewing in the first five years

Evelyn Greenblat and Helen Glezer

Abstract

The Early Childhood Study, conducted by the Australian Institute of Family Studies in the late 1980s, provides a rich data source on parental involvement in both reading and television viewing among children under five. This study gathered information on how often parents read to children and at what age they started reading to children. It looked at the amount of television children watch in their first few years, what parents believed children were gaining from television, and whether television viewing was supervised or unsupervised. This article reports on the findings of the study.

It has long been recognised that the family experiences of children aged between seven months and three years are particularly important for later educational achievement (Ochiltree 1990), and research has shown that children's family environments are better predictors of school success than family socio-economic status or 'social class' (Toomey 1992). Family environments may differ greatly within each socio-economic level.

The importance of parental involvement in fostering children's literacy development in the pre-school years is also recognised. As Toomey (1992) states, 'children learn a great deal within the home in the process of general upbringing' and much of this learning within the family is 'adult assisted'.

According to Sumsion (1991) a lot has been learned in recent years about literacy development in young children. Infants and toddlers surrounded by printed material, and young children living in a 'print rich' environment are absorbing information and learning about written language as part of their daily lives, whether it is print on the Cornflakes packet or a Dr Seuss book. Sumsion believes that 'the importance of reading to children regularly and sharing with them a rich diet of carefully chosen literature is almost impossible to over-emphasise'. The quiet, cosy ritual of the bedtime story creates enjoyable, satisfying learning experiences where, apart from their involvement with the story, toddlers are experiencing how books actually work - for example, you read them from top to bottom and follow the lines from left to right - and begin to realise the links between print and their favourite books and speech.

Television is also one of the main socialisers of children, with the potential for both positive and negative effects. However, quality children's television programs provide enriching learning opportunities for toddlers and pre-school children.

AIFS EARLY CHILDHOOD STUDY

The Institute's Early Childhood Study, conducted by Gay Ochiltree and Don Edgar in the late 1980s, provides a rich data source on parental involvement in both reading and television viewing amongst children under five. This study gathered information on how often parents read to children and at what age they started reading to children. It looked at the amount of television children watch in their first few years, what parents believed children were gaining from television, and whether television viewing was supervised or unsupervised.

The 728 mothers, in Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth, interviewed when their child was in the first year of school, were selected for the sample on the basis of the number of hours their child had been in non-parental care in the first 12 months of life. The sample overrepresents mothers in the workforce. Almost three-fifths of mothers who worked during the pre-school years used formal child care at some time during these years, while almost two in three mothers used informal carers. Formal care was provided at child care centres and by family day carers; informal care was provided by partners, relatives, friends, neighbours and babysitters. About one-third of working mothers used a combination of formal and informal carers during the pre- school years; where only formal or only informal care was used, often more than one carer was involved.

Over 80 per cent of children attended kindergarten in the year before school, and the main reason mothers sent their child to kindergarten was for them to mix with other children, although preparation for school was also an important factor. Mothers thought that getting along with other children was the most important thing their child learned at kindergarten, and the main changes in the child which mothers attributed to kindergarten attendance were that the child matured and became more outgoing.

READING

When asked how old their child was when books were first introduced, more than two-thirds (70 per cent) of mothers reported that they first started looking at books before the child's first birthday and a further one in five introduced books when the child was aged between one and two years. Only 2 per cent said they had not introduced books during the pre-school years.

Table 1 shows that mothers with a tertiary education qualification were most likely (82 per cent) to introduce books during the child's first 12 months, while mothers from non-English-speaking backgrounds (38 per cent) or whose partners were employed in blue collar occupations (31 per cent) were most likely to delay the introduction of books until after the child was two years of age.

Mothers who worked only part-time during the pre-school years or who worked inconsistently over the pre-school years (indicating some attachment to the workforce) introduced books slightly earlier than mothers who worked full-time over the pre-school years (very attached), or those who did not work at all (no workforce attachment). It may be that mothers who work part-time compensate for this by endeavouring to spend time with their children in reading activities. Full-time working mothers may have less time available to devote to activities like reading to their children, and those who did not work during the pre-school years tended to be of lower educational background - mothers who did not complete secondary school being less likely to introduce books to their children before they reached their first birthday. However, the differences in the age of the introduction of books by mothers workforce attachment are small, and are likely to disappear in a multi-variate analysis.

The majority of mothers reported that their child enjoyed looking at books before they started school and only 2 per cent found that their child disliked this activity.

Two in three pre-school children (68 per cent) were read to on average every day throughout the pre-school years by someone in the family and a further one in four (23 per cent) had stories read to them on average two or three times a week. Less than 10 per cent of pre-school children were read to only once a week or less often.

As shown in Table 2, mothers from English-speaking backgrounds (71 per cent), whose partner had a professional (78 per cent) or white collar occupation (75 per cent) or who had a tertiary qualification (84 per cent) were most likely to say that their pre-school child was read to every day, while mothers from non-English-speaking backgrounds (22 per cent) and whose partner had a blue collar occupation (22 per cent) were most likely to read to their pre-school children only once a week. Mothers with only a moderate workforce attachment - that is, they worked only part-time or inconsistently during the pre-school years - were slightly more likely to have children that were read to every day than mothers who worked full-time or did not work at all.

Mothers were asked who usually read to the child during the pre-school years: nine out of ten mothers (88 per cent) usually did this, while just over half (56 per cent) of the fathers read to the child. In one in twelve families (8 per cent) neither parent read to the child during the pre-school years, this situation being more common in families of non- English-speaking background (16 per cent), in blue collar families (17 per cent) and where the mother had not completed secondary school (14 per cent).

One in five pre-school children (19 per cent) were read to by an older sibling and in one in seven families (15 per cent) a grandparent usually read to the child. Older siblings played a more active role in reading to the pre-school child in families where neither parent participated in this activity - that is, families of non-English-speaking background, blue collar families and families where the mother had not completed secondary school.

By the time the child was in the first year of school a substantial majority (88 per cent) were members of a library. As shown in Table 3, library membership was lowest among children from blue collar households and from homes where the mother worked full-time during the pre-school years.

Three in five mothers (60 per cent) reported that they themselves often read books, while two-thirds of mothers (69 per cent) regularly read newspapers and magazines. Tertiary qualified mothers had a higher level of reading, and those from non-English-speaking backgrounds, from blue collar households and with low educational qualifications were less likely to read regularly.

Table 4 shows that mothers who regularly read books, newspapers or magazines were more likely to introduce their child to books at an earlier age. Three in four regular readers (73 per cent) first introduced books before the child was 12 months of age compared with less than three in five mothers (57 per cent) who did not read regularly. Less than one in ten regular readers (8 per cent) delayed the introduction of books until the child was two, while one in five mothers who did not read regularly (18 per cent) first introduced books after the child's second birthday.

When the child was in the first year of school, nine out of ten mothers (89 per cent) said that they helped their child with school work, while almost two in three fathers (61 per cent) helped. In only 5 per cent of families did neither parent help with school work. One in four children (24 per cent) were given assistance with school work by an older sibling, and for 7 per cent, grandparents helped in this area.

Siblings played a more active role in assisting with school work in families of non-English-speaking background, in blue collar families, where the mother had not completed secondary school, and where the mother did not work during the pre-school years.

Fathers and older siblings were slightly more likely to help with school work than to read to the child in the pre- school years, and grandparents were more likely to be involved in reading activities than to help with school work.

TELEVISION VIEWING

Over one-third of children (36 per cent) commenced watching television before they were 12 months of age and a further one in four (29 per cent) started watching television before their second birthday. Only one in eight children (13 per cent) first started watching television after the age of three and less than 1 per cent of mothers said that their child had never watched television.

Mothers were asked how absorbed their child was when watching television and whether they participated in any other activities while watching. Almost half the mothers (45 per cent) reported that during the pre-school years their child played and watched television at the same time, while one in five said that the child was totally absorbed. One in ten mothers stated that the child usually watched television with a parent, and a similar proportion said that the child talked to themselves and others while watching. Once they started school, children were more likely to be totally absorbed in their television watching (32 per cent) and were less likely to play and watch at the same time (27 per cent) or to be watching with a parent (7 per cent).

The main things mothers thought that their children learned from watching television during the pre-school years were new signs, concepts and cognitive skills (59 per cent) and songs and rhymes (43 per cent). One in six mothers (17 per cent) said that their child learned a lot from a particular program such as 'Sesame Street' or 'Playschool' and one in seven (15 per cent) thought their child learned about previously unfamiliar things. Just under one in ten mothers (9 per cent) stated that their child learned nothing from watching television.

On average on school days, one in three children in the first year of school (30 per cent) watched less than one hour of television a day, almost half (45 per cent) watched television for between one and two hours, and one in four children (26 per cent) watched for more than two hours a day. Children from blue collar households or whose mothers had not completed secondary school watched considerably more television on school days while those from professional households or whose mothers had a tertiary qualification were more likely to watch television for less than an hour a day on average.

The majority of children in the first year of school (56 per cent) chose for themselves which television programs they watched and less than half the mothers said that they always chose what their child watched on television.

CONCLUSION

Results from this study illustrate high rates of parental involvement, particularly mothers' involvement, in reading to children in the early pre-school years. Differences in reading levels exist according to socio-economic status, with those from lower socio-economic backgrounds being less involved in reading to toddlers and introducing books at a later age. Those from non-English-speaking backgrounds are also less likely to be involved in reading to children; this could be due to a lack of available children's reading material in their native language or parents lack of competency in English. Where parents have a reduced role in reading activities, older siblings tend to compensate by taking on this activity. Mothers' reading habits influence the early introduction of books to pre-school children. The majority of children are watching television by the age of two years, and by the time they start school most are watching television for more than an hour a day and choosing for themselves which programs to watch.

REFERENCES

  • Ochiltree, G. (1990), Children in Australian Families, Longman Cheshire, Melbourne.
  • Sumsion, J. (1991), Playing with Print, Australian Early Childhood Resource Booklets, Australian Early Childhood Association, Canberra.
  • Toomey, D. (1993) 'A pre-school early literacy program from disadvantaged families: a five-year program', Paper presented at the Fourth Australian Family Research Conference conducted in Manly by Australian Institute of Family Studies, February.