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Children’s language and literacy competence does not begin
when children enter school—Children’s literacy learning
starts well before formal schooling, and studies have shown
that children are sensitive to speech even prenatally (e.g.,
Moon, Lagercrantz, & Kuhl, 2013; Partanen et al., 2013).
Parents and primary caregivers (subsequently referred to as
parents) are highly influential in a child’s early learning as
parent–child interactions are frequent and ongoing. Indeed,
research shows that the home literacy environment (HLE) is
the context in which children first acquire the language and
literacy skills that equip them to make sense of, describe, and
participate in the world (e.g., Liebeskind, Piotrowski,
Lapierre, & Linebarger, 2014; Niklas & Schneider, 2013;
Raikes et al., 2006).
Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) ecological theory offers a theo-
retical framework for the influence of the HLE on child
development. According to Bronfenbrenner, children belong
to a complex and evolving social and cultural ecology. His
theory posits that distal elements of a child’s ecological sys-
tem such as extended family, community, and society have
some impact on children, but proximal factors such as a
child’s immediate family have the most influence on a child’s
development. Similarly, distal family characteristics such as
family socioeconomic status (SES) based on income, occu-
pation, or education and family migration background are far
less influential than proximal family characteristics such as
parent–child interactions (Farrant & Zubrick, 2012; Niklas,
2015; Niklas, Möllers, & Schneider, 2013).
Other theoretical frameworks relevant to a discussion of
the influence of the HLE include Vygotsky’s (1978) social
constructivist theory and Bourdieu’s (1986) social theory.
According to Vygotsky, children learn through observation
and interaction with knowledgeable others in social contexts.
In the context of language and literacy learning, the impor-
tance of parents modeling literacy activities and supporting
their children’s emerging literacy skills is clear. Bourdieu
theorized that the cultural capital to which an individual or a
family has access is a key component of the HLE. This cul-
tural capital includes cultural objects and resources such as
books and works of art, as well as the ability to utilize and
learn from such objects and resources. Consequently, a fam-
ily’s cultural practices such as reading and writing are closely
associated with the family’s cultural capital.
The multifaceted HLE incorporates various literacy-
related activities such as parental reading behavior, library
visits, teaching of letters and sounds, and owning books at
home (Niklas, 2015). However, reading to children is a core
672715SGOXXX10.1177/2158244016672715SAGE OpenNiklas et al.
1University of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Frank Niklas, Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of
Melbourne, 4/100 Leicester Street, Melbourne, Victoria 3010, Australia.
The Sooner, the Better: Early
Reading to Children
Frank Niklas1, Caroline Cohrssen1, and Collette Tayler1
As reading to children plays an important role in language development, primary caregivers are often encouraged to read to
their children from a very young age. However, little is known about the age at which such reading should start. The linguistic
skills of 104 children were assessed shortly before school entry. Their parents were asked how old their children were when
they first read to them and how often they had read to their children. Almost half of the study children were read to before
they were 6 months old. The age at which children were first read to was closely associated with family characteristics such
as socioeconomic status, the frequency with which children were read to as preschoolers, and with children’s linguistic and
cognitive competencies. The findings imply that reading books to very young children indeed contributes meaningfully to a
favorable home literacy environment and supports children’s language development.
storybook reading, onset of reading to a child, home literacy environment (HLE), parent–child interactions, linguistic
2 SAGE Open
element of the HLE (Bus, van IJzendoorn, & Pellegrini,
1995; Niklas, Nguyen, Cloney, Tayler, & Adams, 2016).
Many studies have focused on the impact that reading to
children has on children’s linguistic competencies (e.g.,
Edwards, 2014; Raikes et al., 2006), but little is known about
the age at which parents should start reading to their chil-
dren, whether the age of first reading predicts the frequency
with which a child is read to later on, or whether the age of
first reading predicts children’s competencies as preschool-
ers (e.g., DeBaryshe, 1993).
In this study, parents were asked how old their child was
when first read to. This first-reading age was then tested to
explore its relationship with various child outcomes shortly
prior to school entry.
Early Linguistic Development
The ability to read and write letters, with comprehension, is
the basis for success in formal education. Adults who show
greater literacy competencies often earn higher incomes,
have better job prospects, lower risk of mental illness, and
enjoy better health (Fawcett, 2003; Lyon, 2002). However,
no clear-cut borders exist between the precursors of reading
and spelling, such as children’s vocabulary and phonological
awareness, and children’s later reading and spelling skills
(Bowman, Donovan, & Burns, 2003; Schatschneider,
Fletcher, Francis, Carlson, & Foorman, 2004; Torgesen,
2002; Torppa et al., 2007). Oral language skills such as
vocabulary and code-related skills such as phonological
awareness are interrelated domains of emergent literacy.
Consequently, the early ability to understand language and to
use or manipulate language expressively is very important
(Whitehurst & Lonigan, 1998). Understanding the initial
stages of linguistic development and identifying aspects of
early literacy experiences that support children’s later read-
ing proficiency present opportunities to have a positive
impact on early linguistic skills of very young children.
As language and literacy experiences in the first three
years of life set the scene for children’s later literacy compe-
tencies, these experiences are critical. Passive listening and
nonverbal communication are a child’s first step toward
becoming an active talker, and differences in children’s abil-
ity to segment conversational speech signals are predictors
of later language development (Newman, Ratner, Jusczyk,
Jusczyk, & Dow, 2006). As children develop, language com-
prehension becomes increasingly important. For instance, in
a study conducted by Flax, Realpe-Bonilla, Roesler,
Choudhury, and Benasich (2009), children’s language com-
prehension at three years of age predicted various language
and reading measures at seven years of age. Furthermore,
children with stronger early linguistic skills tend to outper-
form children with weak early linguistic skills on assess-
ments of literacy abilities in school, and this gap appears to
widen over time (Bast & Reitsma, 1998; Torppa, Poikkeus,
Laakso, Eklund, & Lyytinen, 2006). Parents who support
their children’s language and later emergent literacy learning
intensively by providing a high-quality HLE facilitate chil-
dren’s vocabulary acquisition (Mol, Bus, de Jong, & Smeets,
2008; Niklas & Schneider, 2015). Consequently, the HLE
appears to play an important role in children’s early linguis-
HLE and Reading to Children
Research demonstrates that home learning environments are
associated with children’s numeracy abilities (e.g., Kleemans,
Peeters, Segers, & Verhoeven, 2012; Niklas & Schneider,
2014) and behavioral outcomes (e.g., Schmiedeler, Niklas, &
Schneider, 2014), and predict children’s literacy competen-
cies (e.g., Niklas & Schneider, 2013; Sénéchal & LeFevre,
2002). For instance, Niklas and Schneider (2013) demon-
strated that aspects of the HLE such as parental reading,
reading to the child, and the number of books in a household
predicted preschoolers’ vocabulary and phonological aware-
ness as well as the further development of literacy competen-
cies even when controlling for a range of child and family
Sénéchal and LeFevre (2002, 2014) showed specific asso-
ciations of different aspects of the HLE with children’s lin-
guistic and literacy competencies. The informal literacy
environment consisted of variables measuring the shared
reading behavior in the family, whereas the formal literacy
environment took parents’ literacy teaching into account.
Parents’ literacy teaching predicted letter knowledge and
phonological awareness, whereas the informal literacy envi-
ronment was associated with vocabulary growth.
Despite the fact that the HLE is a multifaceted construct,
reading to children is still a fundamental element of this con-
struct. Exposure to books supports vocabulary acquisition
(Bus et al., 1995; Farrant & Zubrick, 2012; Prevoo et al.,
2014) as books typically contain more complex vocabulary
than common usage vocabulary (Sénéchal, LeFevre, Hudson,
& Lawseon, 1996). Early meta-analyses conducted by
Scarborough and Dobrich (1994) and Bus and colleagues
(1995) revealed that reading to children explained about 8%
of the variance in children’s linguistic competencies. This
finding is important as reading to children can be more easily
manipulated than, for instance, family SES. In addition, one
can assume that early effects of a positive learning environ-
ment are cumulative over time (Sénéchal & LeFevre, 2001;
cf. Stanovich, 1986).
In addition to the frequency of reading and quality of read-
ing (Lever & Sénéchal, 2011; L. M. Phillips, Norris, &
Anderson, 2008; Sim & Berthelsen, 2014), the onset of read-
ing seems to play an important role (DeBaryshe, 1993; Niklas,
Cohrssen, Tayler, & Schneider, 2016; see also B. M. Phillips
& Lonigan, 2009). In their study, B. M. Phillips and Lonigan
(2009) analyzed the relationship of different measures of the
HLE—among these the onset of reading to children—with
various background characteristics of the family. Here, higher
Niklas et al. 3
quality HLE was associated with greater family income, better
caregiver education, and lower educator stress level. However,
no child outcome measures were included in the analyses, and
the focus was not on the onset of reading to children.
In her study, DeBaryshe (1993) found that the age at
which 41 two-year-old children were first read to was a bet-
ter predictor of oral language skills than the frequency with
which children were read to or visited the library. It should
be noted that correlational data only were used and no con-
trol variables for family or child characteristics were included
in this analysis. Given the small sample size, the young sam-
ple, and the fact that important family characteristics such as
family language or migration background were not taken
into account, the findings of DeBaryshe need to be regarded
as preliminary—important as they are.
In a German study (Niklas, Cohrssen, Tayler, & Schneider,
2016), the age children were first read to was a significant
predictor of reading frequency in kindergarten, children’s
rhyming abilities, vocabulary, and, to a lesser extent, other
cognitive abilities such as numeracy skills and intelligence
as well. However, the onset of shared reading was assessed
according to categories only and about 75% of the sample
fell into the earliest category (shared reading started before
the child age of two years). In addition, although research
indicates that the association of the HLE with children’s lin-
guistic and cognitive outcomes seems to be comparable
across countries, there is also evidence that the HLE might
be more closely associated with children’s vocabulary in
German-speaking contexts than in English-speaking con-
texts (Niklas, Tayler, & Schneider, 2015).
Although these studies indicate that starting shared read-
ing early seems to be beneficial for children’s linguistic
development, little is known about whether the age at which
parents first read to children is a specific predictor of English-
speaking preschoolers’ linguistic competencies, even when
controlling for child and family characteristics. In addition,
we do not know whether children start to benefit from par-
ents reading to them from a particular age.
The Current Study
Research has shown that literacy-based parent–child interac-
tions in general, and reading to children in particular, support
the development of children’s linguistic competencies (Bus
et al., 1995; Liebeskind et al., 2014; Sénéchal, Pagan, Lever,
& Ouellette, 2008). However, despite a few studies analyz-
ing the onset of reading (e.g., DeBaryshe, 1993; Niklas,
Cohrssen, Tayler, & Schneider, 2016), there are still ques-
tions to answer. This study uses data from an Australian
study to analyze the association of the onset of parent–child
reading with (a) the frequency with which children were read
to in the year prior to commencing formal school education,
and (b) various child outcomes.
We expected the age at which children were first read to
would be closely related to the frequency with which children
were read to in the year before school as well as to children’s
linguistic abilities, and would predict these even when con-
trolling for child and family characteristics. As shared reading
seems to be a fairly specific predictor for children’s linguistic
competencies, we expected weaker associations with other
cognitive child abilities such as concentration, numeracy
competencies, and intelligence. We also anticipated that the
onset of shared reading would not predict these abilities sig-
nificantly when controlling for child and family characteris-
tics. In an additional exploratory approach, we tested whether
and how the associations between the onset of shared reading
and the outcome variables changed for different subgroups of
children by incrementally excluding children whose parents
started reading to their children comparatively late.
All 104 preschoolers attended one of four child care centers
located across one local government area in Melbourne.
After obtaining approval from local government, formal con-
sent to conduct the study was obtained from the center coor-
dinators, directors, and teachers. Each family registered as
using the various early childhood settings was invited to par-
ticipate in the study. Members of the research team were on
hand to obtain consent from parents and caregivers and to
answer questions at morning drop-off and afternoon pickup
Children were assessed toward the end of their final term
in kindergarten. In the sample, boys (55.8%) outnumber girls
(44.2%), with a mean age of approximately 5 years 2 months
(SD = 4.0 months) at the time of assessment. About 6% of the
sample spoke a language other than English as the main lan-
guage at home. In 37% of the sample, at least one of the
parents, or the child, was born outside Australia. However,
when participants born in a country in which English is an
official language were excluded from the migrant group, the
overall percentage of children with a migration background
decreased to 20.6%.
The assessment of children took place in the kindergarten
rooms during November and December 2014, and thus about
two months before the children entered school as the school
year in Australia starts at the end of January. Multiple assess-
ment tasks were used and those relevant to the analyses are
briefly described below. In addition, parents were asked to
complete surveys on family background characteristics and
their reading behavior at three points during 2014.
Measures—Assessment of Children’s Linguistic
and Other Cognitive Competencies
Several subtests were drawn from the Woodcock–Johnson
III Tests of Cognition and Achievement (WJ III; Mather &
Woodcock 2001a, 2001b; McGrew, Woodcock, & Mather,
4 SAGE Open
2001). The WJ III is a standardized, normed measure fre-
quently used to assess children’s achievement (e.g., Chien
et al., 2010; Duncan et al., 2007).
Verbal Comprehension. This test has four subtests: Picture
Vocabulary, Synonyms, Antonyms, and Verbal Analogies.
Each subtest starts with a sample item to demonstrate how to
approach the question and for the researcher to provide feed-
back to the child. Thereafter, no feedback is provided.
Together, these subtests measure different aspects of children’s
acquired vocabulary skills. For four- to six-year-old children,
estimated reliabilities on Verbal Comprehension range from
.89 to .90.
Sound Awareness, subtest: Rhyming. Here, children had to pro-
vide a word that rhymed with a given word or sentence. This
subtest becomes increasingly complex the further one
advances through it. The median reliability for WJ III Sound
Awareness is .81.
Concept Formation. This task requires rule application and
frequent switching from one rule to another. It is a broad
measure of the ability to reason, form concepts, and solve
problems, using unfamiliar information or novel procedures.
For each presented item, the child tries to figure out the rule
that divides a set of symbols into two groups. Other than in
similar assessment tools, during the assessment of concept
formation, the child receives feedback on the performance,
and in case of wrong answers the correct one is pointed out
and explained (median test reliability = .94).
In addition to the WJ III subtest, two other assessments
were used to measure children’s short-term concentration
and their numeracy abilities.
Concentration. The Frankfurt Tests for Five-Year-Olds–Con-
centration (FTF-K; cf. Esser, 2002) measures children’s abil-
ity to work quickly, to remain goal-oriented, and to
concentrate. In this timed, paper-and-pencil worksheet test,
children are required to draw a line through as many pears as
possible in 90 seconds while disregarding the apples. Pears
and apples are black line drawings presented in rows and fill-
ing one side of an A4 page (retest reliability for up to 3
weeks: rtt = .79-.85).
Numeracy abilities. Four subtests were used to assess children’s
numeracy abilities: Counting, Identifying Number Symbols,
Stating Number Values, and Estimating Amounts. In the
Counting subtest, children were asked to count forward and
backward and to name numbers that immediately precede or
follow a spoken number word. They were also shown number
symbols from 1 to 21 in a nonnumerical sequence and asked to
name the number. The number values task required children to
match cards depicting different numbers of stick-figure draw-
ings of children with a spoken quantity or with an indicated
numeral on a number line from 1 to 10. Finally, children were
presented with a subitizing task. Dotted cards were revealed
for 3 s and the children were first required to state how many
dots had been seen and then to compare the number of dots
presented. The sum scores of each of the four subtests were
combined in a total sum score that measured children’s early
numeracy ability (Cronbach’s α = .70).
Parents were requested to complete surveys about child and
family characteristics and the HLE, and 98 surveys were
returned. In addition to providing information on migration
background and main language spoken at home (see sample
description), respondents were asked about their occupation
and their partner’s occupation to assign prestige values to
these occupations (cf. Wegener, 1988). Here, values from 20
(an unskilled laborer) to 186.8 (a physician) are assigned.
The household occupation awarded the highest prestige was
used as an indicator of family SES (M = 99.7, SD = 33.5).
Parents were asked whether they read to their child, inde-
pendent of the language used, and how old the child was when
first read to (parents were required to enter years and months
in the space provided). Only one family reported not having
read to their child. More than one third of the sample (37.5%)
indicated that they started reading to their child within the first
three months after the child’s birth and four families reported
that they read to their child from birth. This early start was
sometimes attributed to the participating child having older
siblings whom they joined for reading sessions. Another third
of the families started reading to their child when they were
four to six months old. Six months was the mode (24%) and
6.34 months the mean (SD = 5.90) for this sample. These find-
ings align very well with the reported average onset of reading
in a study by B. M. Phillips and Lonigan (2009). Almost all
families had started reading to their children by the time the
children were 15 months old (93.8%). Two parents reported
starting to read to their children when they were 18 months
old, three parents first read to their children when they were
two years old, and one family started reading to their child
when he was three years old (see Figure 1).
Finally, on three occasions during 2014, parents were
asked to report the number of days during the preceding
week on which the study child had been read to. The average
of these three values (Cronbach’s α = .89; rtt = .65-.80) was
used to indicate the average number of days a child was read
to in a typical week during the year prior to commencing
school. Almost half of the families reported having read to
their child every day (49%). Another 25% of the respondents
read to their children on five or six days per week, and 11.2%
read to their child on three days or fewer.
First, correlations and descriptive statistics for all study vari-
ables are reported. Pearson’s r was used as correlation
Niklas et al. 5
coefficient for all correlations except for the correlations of
onset age of shared reading with the other variables as this
variable was slightly positively skewed (skewness = 2.3).
Here, Spearman’s rho was used instead. Thereafter, correla-
tions (Spearman’s ρ) of first reading to a child with the other
variables are reported for reduced samples, excluding fami-
lies that report late onset of first parent–child reading. Here,
we started with the full sample of children with available
data (child age when the child was first read to ≤36 months)
and reduced the sample to children aged 12, 9, 6, or 3 months
and less when read to for the first time. This exploratory
approach tested whether the associations of the study vari-
ables change for these subsamples. Finally, regression analy-
ses were conducted to predict both current reading frequency
and children’s linguistic, and other cognitive competencies
by the age the child was first read to, while controlling for
child age, sex, and main language as well as family SES and
migration background. Here, in a first model, the control
variables are used as predictors, and in a second model, first
parent–child reading is introduced into the model as addi-
Table 1 presents the correlations and descriptive statistics for
all study variables. The later that parents started reading to
their child, the less frequently they read to their child in the
year prior to school. No significant associations of first read-
ing with child sex, age, and main language and with concen-
tration and numeracy abilities were found. However, children
who were read to earlier showed greater rhyming ability, ver-
bal comprehension, and concept formation. In addition, first
reading was significantly associated with family background
variables. Here, families with a migration background or
with a lower SES began reading to their children later.
Children in these families also showed significantly lower
verbal comprehension. As expected, all linguistic and
cognitive abilities were highly correlated. Current shared
reading frequency showed similar associations with the
study variables as onset of shared reading with the exception
that the frequency children were read to was significantly
associated with children’s numeracy abilities.
In a next step, correlations were again calculated, this
time for subsamples excluding families who started reading
to their children late. As can be seen in Table 2, excluding
families from the analysis who started reading to their chil-
dren after their child’s first birthday, or after the child was 9
months old, did not change the picture much although first
reading was no longer significantly associated with family
background variables. However, including only those fami-
lies who started reading to their children when the child was
6 months old or younger led to small, nonsignificant correla-
tions of first reading with the frequency with which the child
was read to in the final year of preschool and with children’s
verbal comprehension. Rhyming and concept formation
were still significantly associated with the onset of reading in
that children who were read to earlier within this subsample
still showed greater performance on these assessment tasks.
Finally, when we included only those families who started
reading to their child when the child was three months old or
younger, no significant correlations were found at all. In
addition, most correlations were close to 0.
In a last step, regression analyses were used to predict
reading frequency in the final preschool year, and children’s
linguistic and cognitive abilities by first reading, when con-
trolling for child and family characteristics (see Table 3).
Even after controlling for various child and family character-
istics, the age at which a child was first read to was a very
strong predictor of parent–child reading frequency in the
year prior to school (large effect size) and a significant pre-
dictor of children’s rhyming abilities and verbal comprehen-
sion (small to medium effect size). In comparison, first
reading was not a significant predictor of children’s concen-
tration and numerical abilities (p > .60) and only a margin-
ally significant predictor of children’s concept formation (p
< .10; 3% of additional explained variance by age the child
was first read to; small effect).
In addition, older children showed greater competencies
but were not read to more frequently, and there was a ten-
dency that children who spoke English as their main lan-
guage and came from higher SES families performed better
in the linguistic tasks. Finally, boys were read to more fre-
quently in our sample, and girls performed better on the
rhyming task and slightly better on concept formation and
Early support of children’s linguistic competencies is essen-
tial as linguistic and literacy skills play a major role in every-
day life and are important for later academic achievement
and life success in general (Fawcett, 2003; Lyon, 2002).
012345678912 14 15 18 24 36
Child age in months when the child was first read to
Figure 1. Distribution of child age in months when the child was
first read to.
6 SAGE Open
Table 2. Correlational Analyses (Spearman’s ρ) for Age, the Child Was First Read to in Months, With the Study Variables for Different
Subgroups of Children.
(child age in
≤36 96 −.41** .10 .06 .25* −.16 −.29** −.36** −.33** −.38** −.15 −.13
≤12 88 −.30** −.03 .01 .25* −.04 −.14 −.29** −.25* −.35** −.07 −.08
≤9 81 −.22* .00 −.09 .17 −.07 −.03 −.31** −.25* −.39** −.11 −.18
≤6 68 −.04 .06 −.02 .12 −.04 −.04 −.32** −.17 −.31* −.13 −.14
≤3 36 −.06 .14 .19 .07 −.02 .28 −.07 .05 −.24 .08 .24
Note. SES = socioeconomic status.
a0 = female; 1 = male.
b0 = no migration background; 1 = one or both parents and/or child born abroad.
c0 = another language than English is child’s main language; 1 = English is main language.
*p < .05. **p < .01.
Results in this study demonstrate that early onset of parent–
child reading is favorable for children’s linguistic competen-
cies (cf. DeBaryshe, 1993; Niklas, Cohrssen, Tayler, &
Schneider, 2016). Whereas onset of shared reading explained
a similar amount of variance in both, children’s rhyming
abilities and verbal comprehension, research indicates that
the onset of shared reading should be a better predictor of
children’s linguistic abilities such as vocabulary, as opposed
to literacy competencies such as sound awareness (Niklas,
Cohrssen, Tayler, & Schneider, 2016; Sénéchal & LeFevre,
Furthermore, the age at which children were first read to
was highly correlated with the frequency with which they
were read to in the year before school. This finding indicates
that the early parent–child reading onset may be regarded as
a marker for general literacy habits in a family. Clearly, the
age at which children were first read to represents an impor-
tant aspect of the HLE (cf. Niklas, Cohrssen, Tayler, &
Schneider, 2016; B. M. Phillips & Lonigan, 2009).
In a set of additional regression analyses, we included the
current frequency with which the child was read to as an addi-
tional predictor of child outcomes. This led to the onset of
shared reading becoming a nonsignificant predictor of chil-
dren’s linguistic competencies. Whereas children’s vocabu-
lary was predicted by current frequency of shared reading, no
significant amount of variance of rhyming was explained any
longer by these two variables. These findings may be partly
due to multicollinearity for which we found evidence.
However, they also indicate that current reading behavior
seems to be a better predictor of child outcomes than the onset
of shared reading, while the onset of shared reading may be
more of an indicator of the later HLE. Small sample size may
partly explain the reduced and nonsignificant amount of
explained variance in child linguistic competencies by onset
of shared reading, given that in a larger German study, onset
of shared reading remained a significant predictor of child
vocabulary and rhyming abilities when current frequency of
shared reading was controlled (cf. Niklas, Cohrssen, Tayler,
Table 1. Correlational Analyses and Descriptive Statistics (Means and Standard Deviations) for all Study Variables.
2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 M SD
First read to (child age in months) −.41** .10 .06 .25* −.16 −.29** −.36** −.33** −.38** −.15 −.13 6.34 5.90
Reading frequency (2) .12 .00 −.05 .21* .28** .26* .35** .21* .12 .23* 5.74 1.59
Sex (0 = female; 1 = male) (3) .26** .14 −.14 −.12 −.23* −.13 −.20* −.16 −.07 0.56 0.50
Age in months (4) −.01 .08 −.22* .12 .16 .14 .18 .28** 52.74 3.96
Migration backgrounda (5) −.25* −.06 −.15 −.24* −.23* −.13 −.09 0.37 0.49
Main languageb (6) .06 .18 .33** .12 .11 .11 0.94 0.24
SES (7) .29** .26* .19 .03 .11 99.71 33.53
Rhyming (8) .63** .34** .36** .39** 6.55 4.17
Verbal comprehension (9) .51** .40** .49** 22.09 5.64
Concept formation (10) .31** .43** 9.93 6.36
Concentration (11) .43** 28.41 5.87
Numeracy abilities (12) 21.45 5.97
Note. SES = socioeconomic status.
a0 = no migration background; 1 = one or both parents and/or child born abroad.
b0 = another language than English is child’s main language; 1 = English is main language.
*p < .05. **p < .01.
Niklas et al. 7
Table 3. Regression Analyses to Predict Frequency, Children Were Read to in the Last Year Before Formal Schooling, Children’s
Rhyming Abilities, Verbal Comprehension, Concept Formation, Concentration, and Numeracy Abilities.
coefficient B SE t value
Gain ΔR2 by
Model 2 .32** .17**
Age −0.00 0.04 −0.03
Sex (0 = female; 1 = male) 0.72 0.30 2.39*
Migration backgroundb0.18 0.30 0.59
Main languagec0.66 0.63 1.05
SES 0.01 0.01 1.21
First readinga−0.13 0.03 −4.62**
Model 2 .24** .04*
Age 0.24 0.11 2.31*
Sex (0 = female; 1 = male) −1.71 0.83 −2.05*
Migration backgroundb−0.42 0.84 −0.50
Main languagec0.71 1.76 0.40
SES 0.03 0.01 2.10*
First readinga−0.17 0.08 −2.15*
Model 2 .28** .04*
Age 0.32 0.14 2.33*
Sex (0 = female; 1 = male) −0.93 1.10 −0.85
Migration backgroundb−1.47 1.11 −0.13
Main languagec4.57 2.31 1.97†
SES 0.03 0.02 1.92†
First readinga−0.21 0.10 −2.04*
Model 2 .18* .03
Age 0.37 0.17 2.21*
Sex (0 = female; 1 = male) −2.36 1.32 −1.79†
Migration backgroundb−2.12 1.33 −1.59
Main languagec−0.75 2.78 −0.27
SES 0.03 0.02 1.23
First readinga−0.21 0.12 −1.70†
Model 2 .09 .00
Age 0.35 0.16 2.15*
Sex (0 = female; 1 = male) −2.25 1.28 −1.76†
Migration backgroundb−1.00 1.29 −0.77
Main languagec0.71 2.69 0.26
SES 0.00 0.02 0.21
First readinga−0.06 0.12 −0.49
Model 2 .13* .00
Age 0.51 0.16 3.20*
Sex (0 = female; 1 = male) −1.46 1.27 −1.14
Migration backgroundb−0.49 1.29 −0.38
Main languagec0.85 2.68 0.32
SES 0.03 0.02 1.29
First readinga−0.05 0.12 −0.40
Note. SES = socioeconomic status.
aFirst reading to child (child age in months).
b0 = no migration background; 1 = one or both parents and/or child born abroad.
c0 = another language than English is child’s main language; 1 = English is main language.
†p < .10. *p < .05. **p < .01.
8 SAGE Open
& Schneider, 2016). Finally, current reading frequency also
significantly predicted children’s numeracy abilities. This
finding may be due to shared reading being associated with
numeracy-related activities in the home which were not con-
trolled (Niklas, 2015) or to the numeracy abilities assessed
depending to some extent on children’s verbal skills.
In exploratory analyses, the onset of shared reading
proved to be closely associated with later reading frequency
and with children’s linguistic competencies, even when
excluding those families from the sample who started read-
ing to their children comparatively late. Consequently, the
significant associations were not due to child and family
characteristics in the few cases in which the child was first
read to very late. The associations changed meaningfully
only when all children were removed from the sample who
were first read to at 6 months of age or later. This may be due
in part to the somewhat diminished variance in onset of read-
ing in the remaining subsamples. However, the variance in
all other study variables remained stable for all analyzed sub-
samples, suggesting that the findings are not the result of
lack of variance only. Consequently, parents should be
encouraged to start reading to their young children early.
Although it is unlikely to make much difference whether
parents start reading to children at the age of two or four
months, our findings indicate that reading aloud to a child
before the child reaches the age of six months appears to be
advantageous to the child’s linguistic development. Research
shows that children are sensitive to language even prenatally
(Moon et al., 2013; Partanen et al., 2013), yet in the first few
months after a child is born, general language experiences
are more likely to make a difference than reading aloud.
However, as no negative effects of a very early start of read-
ing to a child are to be expected, the sooner the better appears
to be best.
Whereas some studies found comprehensive measures of
the HLE to be a predictor of children’s numeracy abilities as
well (Anders et al., 2012), the onset of reading to a child
proved to be a specific predictor of children’s linguistic com-
petencies, but not of numeracy competencies or of concen-
tration. Obviously, shared book reading events present rich
opportunities for children to acquire new vocabulary, to
rehearse new words in extended conversations, to play with
language, and to experience the purpose of print media. All
of these experiences support children’s linguistic develop-
ment (Bus et al., 1995; Mol et al., 2008; Schatschneider
et al., 2004; Torgesen, 2002; Torppa et al., 2007).
The age at which children were first read to was also
related with children’s concept formation in correlational
analysis. Furthermore, first reading was a marginally signifi-
cant predictor of concept formation, after controlling for
child and family characteristics (p < .10, small effect size).
This aligns with recent studies that reported small to medium
effect size associations of the home learning environment
with intelligence (Frumkin, 2013; Kleemans et al., 2012;
Niklas, Cohrssen, & Tayler, 2016).
Also aligning with results from earlier research, both the
onset of parent–child reading and reading frequency were
closely associated with background variables such as family
SES and migration background (Aikens & Barbarin, 2008;
Edwards, 2014; Niklas et al., 2013; Prevoo et al., 2014).
However, the association of the age at which children were
first read to with children’s linguistic outcomes remained
significant when “late onset reading” children were excluded
from the sample, whereas the association with family back-
ground variables diminished. In addition, first reading
remained a significant predictor of children’s linguistic out-
comes when controlling for SES, migration background, and
child’s main language. The onset of shared reading is thus an
important predictor of both later shared reading frequency
and child linguistic competencies, independent of the family
Some further interesting results were observed. As
expected in samples of children as young as these, child age
was a significant predictor of all child outcomes. In addition,
boys were read to more frequently, whereas girls showed
somewhat greater cognitive abilities. We can only speculate
on these findings. Given the small sample size, these results
may be random. Alternatively, the parents of boys in our
sample may have thought that their children would need
greater support and thus read to them more frequently.
The onset and frequency of parent–child reading were self-
reported in parent surveys and such survey responses are sus-
ceptible to perceived social desirability. Prospective
longitudinal studies would be needed for more accuracy as
parents might also not remember correctly the age of their
child when they first started reading to him or her. However,
previous home learning environment studies have shown that
surveys provide reliable data and lead to findings that are
closely related to those obtained with other measures (cf.
Burgess, 2002). Consequently, although our approach cer-
tainly has to be regarded as exploratory and preliminary, and
the findings interpreted with caution, our correlational analy-
ses with subsamples may help to better understand the associa-
tion of onset of shared reading and various outcome variables,
and may provide a first hint at the child age at which shared
reading supports children’s linguistic development.
Beyond the limitation of self-reported, retrospective esti-
mations of the onset of shared reading by parents, other limi-
tations mark this study. The sample size was small and
characterized by, on average, middle to high SES families.
One may expect to find later onsets of reading and less fre-
quent reading to children in samples with a low to middle
family SES (Niklas, Cohrssen, Tayler, & Schneider, 2016).
Further research needs to test whether the associations found
in this study would change with a wider range of family SES.
Nonetheless, the onset of reading and the frequency with
which children were read to align very well with figures
Niklas et al. 9
reported in other international studies (Duursma, 2014; B.
M. Phillips & Lonigan, 2009).
In addition, it is not possible to interpret our results caus-
ally due to the high likelihood of gene–environment interac-
tions, that is, inherent parent and child characteristics
influencing both, the HLE and child outcomes. Future
research should test whether onset age of shared reading var-
ies between families with or without a genetic risk for dys-
lexia and analyze possible interactions.
We also did not assess whether children in families with a
background of migration were read to in English or in an
language other than English. As the child outcomes were all
assessed in English, this might have played a role. However,
in families with a migration background, children not only
had more limited vocabularies, but onset of parent–child
reading also occurred later, independent of the language
In our study, we focused only on the age at which children
were first read to and the frequency with which they were
read to in the final preschool year. Consequently, we do not
consider other aspects of shared book reading that play a
major role in children’s linguistic development such as the
quality of the reading (e.g., Mol et al., 2008; L. M. Phillips
et al., 2008) or the appropriateness of the book (Kucirkova,
Messer, & Whitelock, 2012). Future studies need to explore
the relationship between onset of shared book reading and
the quality of the book reading.
Unfortunately, we were not able to include children’s
actual reading or spelling abilities in school or literacy com-
petencies in kindergarten as outcome measures to test
whether the age children were first read to also predicts these
outcomes. However, children’s rhyming abilities and vocab-
ulary are important predictors of later reading and spelling
abilities (e.g., Bowman et al., 2003; Schatschneider et al.,
2004). Consequently, the onset of shared reading should also
be associated with later academic achievement in school.
Despite these limitations, this is one of the first studies to
focus first on the influence of the age at which children were
first read to on the development of children’s linguistic
skills, and second on how this first reading is associated
with later literacy experiences in the home. The findings
indicate that starting early can support the development of
children’s language abilities and that the onset of shared
reading seems to be a good and specific indicator of the
overall HLE. Consequently, parents should be encouraged
to start reading to their children when they are very young—
the sooner, the better.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect
to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support
for the research and/or authorship of this article: This work was
supported by a fellowship within the Postdoctoral Programme of
the German Academic Exchange Services (DAAD).
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Frank Niklas is a developmental and educational psychologist at
the University of Würzburg, Germany. He also has an honorary
appointment at the University of Melbourne. He conducts research
on the home learning environment, the development of children’s
mathematical and literacy competencies, and children’s school
Caroline Cohrssen is a senior lecturer on the Master of Teaching
(Early Childhood) at the University of Melbourne. Her research
interests include the influence of the home learning environment on
children’s literacy and numeracy skills, children’s demonstrations
of mathematical thinking and their implications for teaching and
learning in early childhood education, and teacher perceptions of
Collette Tayler is professor at the University of Melbourne and
holds the Chair in Early Childhood Education and Care in the
Melbourne Graduate School of Education. Collette’s work
addresses program access and engagement; public and private
investments; program standards and quality; the curriculum and
pedagogy applied in different services; leadership and staff devel-
opment; child and family involvement and program outcomes. Her
research seeks to explain both universal principles and contextual
variations needed to provide exemplary care and education for