Parents’ reading-related knowledge and children’s
Megan Ladd & Sandra Martin-Chang & Kyle Levesque
Received: 2 October 2010 / Accepted: 27 April 2011 / Published online: 16 June 2011
The International Dyslexia Association 2011
Abstract Teacher reading-related knowledge (pho nol ogi c al awarenes s and phonic s
knowledge) predicts student reading, however little is known about the reading-related
knowledge of parents. Participants comprised 70 dyads (children from kindergarten and
grade 1 and the ir parents). Parents were administered a questionnaire tapping int o
reading-related knowledge, print exposure, storyboo k reading, and general cultural
knowledge. Children were tested on m easures of letter–word knowledge, sound
awareness, receptive vocabulary, oral expression, and mathematical skill. Parent
reading-related knowledge showed signi ficant positive links with child letter–word
knowledge and sound awareness, but showed no correlations with child measures of
mathem atical skill or vocabulary. Furthermore, parent reading-related knowledge was
not ass ociated with parents’ own print exposure or cultural knowledge, indicating that
knowledge about English word structure may be separate from other cognitive skills.
Implications are discu ssed in terms of improving parent reading-related k now ledge to
promote child liter acy.
Keywords Children’s reading acquisition
Teachers’ reading-related knowledge
Early reading acquisition makes a significant contribution to lifelong reading engagement;
it increases vocabulary size, academic success, and world knowledge (Stanovich &
Cunningham 1993, 1997; Stanovich et al. 1995). Therefore, parents and teachers alike have
a special interest in fostering successful reading experiences for children. There is a
Ann. of Dyslexia (2011) 61:201–222
S. Martin-Chang (*)
Department of Education, Concordia University, 1455 de Maisonneuve Boulevard West, Montreal, QC,
Canada H3G 1M8
growing consensu s that teachers’ reading-re lated know ledge i s positively associated
with student literacy (Hatcher et al. 2006; McCutchen et al. 2002a; b; Spea r-Swerling &
Brucker 2004). However, very li ttle is known about the relationship between parents’
readin g-related knowledge an d the re ading ski lls of their chil dren. The goa l of the
present study is to investigate the potentially important link between parent knowledge
and child skill.
In accordance with the “simple view” (language comprehension×decoding=reading;
Gough & Tunmer 1986), teachers must be well-versed on how to nurture both language
comprehension and decoding abilities in their students. Evans and Shaw (2008) noted that
storybook reading was a means of exposing children to more varied and complex linguistic
structures than would otherwise be experienced from spoken language. Therefore, one of
the ways that language comprehension can be augmented is through storybook reading (Al
Otaiba 2004; Hindman et al. 2008).
Given that storybook reading is associated with higher listening comprehension skills
and greater vocabulary breadth (Audet et al. 2008), knowledge of children’s literature is
often considered an essential component of language arts instruction (National Reading
Panel 2000). However, a growing body of evidence has reported that listening to
storybooks, in and of itself, does not result in measurably elevated reading scores (Aram
& Biron 2004; Evans et al. 2000). Knowledge of storybooks, then, seems to coincide with
teaching strategies targeted at improving only half of Gough’s model (i.e., language
comprehension). This hypothesis fits nicely with classroom observations. For example,
McCutchen noted that teachers who were well-versed in children’s literature were more
likely to engage in storybook reading in the classroom (McCutchen et al. 2002a), however,
they were no more likely to teach children the skills required for learning to reading and
spell than their less knowledgeable peers (McCutchen et al. 2002b).
Decoding skills are not learned naturally. In the absence of explicit teaching, it is
difficult for many children to gain a firm understanding of the alphabetic principle (that
printed letters represent the sounds heard in speech). Therefore, teachers must provide
experiences beyond storybook reading in order to develop the second component of
Gough’s model; phonological awareness and phonics knowledge have emerged as key
elements for the teaching and learning of decoding.
Phonological awareness is defined as the ability to identify and manipulate individual
sounds (phonemes) and units (syllables) within words (Gray & McCutchen 2006). In a
language with an opaque orthography, such as English, it is common for words to have an
unequal number of letters and speech sounds. For instance, the word “chap” has four letters,
but only three speech sounds: /ch/a/p/. Reversed, the three speech sounds in “chap” are
represented by five letters (“patch”). Research has shown that this ability to recognize and
manipulate speech sounds is one of the best predictors of children’s reading acquisition
(Goswami & Bryant 1992). Moreover, the ability for teachers to “hear” speech sounds, as
demonstrated by their ability to count them, has been associated with effective literacy
instruction (Spear-Swerling & Brucker 2004).
’ phonics knowledge is considered a second critical skill that is positively
associated with children’s decoding (Cunningham et al. 2004; Moats & Foorman 2003).
Phonics is defined as knowledge of the relationships between specific printed letters and
their corresponding spoken sounds (Ehri et al. 2001). This ranges from understanding
relatively simple concepts (e.g., “a” is for “apple”), to the comprehension of more advanced
letter-sound pairings (e.g., “king”, “queen” and “cat” all start with /k/). Phonics also entails
knowledge of variable phoneme-grapheme correspondences (e.g., the letter “c” is usually
pronounced /k/, unless followed by “e”, “i”, or “y”, in which case it is pronounced /s/).
202 M. Ladd et al.
Because of the importance of phonological awareness and phonics knowledge to
children’s reading acquisition, these abilities have been investigated extensiv ely in
populations of teachers. Cunningham et al. (2004) studied the disciplinary knowledge of
722 primary teachers. To measure phonological awareness, participants were asked to count
the number of speech sounds contained in 11 words. It was found that only 30% of teachers
were able to meet the passing criteria of the test (at least 6/11), and only 1% received a
perfect score. These findings do not reflect poor reading abilities in American teachers; on
the contrary, the perceived ease induced by fluent reading can sometimes obscure many of
the complexities inherent in written English. For example, teachers have reported difficulty
in differentiating regular and irregular words (words that do not conform to standard letter–
sound correspondences). This difficulty is more pronounced when they are presented with
an irregular word that is very common (e.g., 55% of teachers failed to identify the word
“what” as having atypical spelling patterns) presumably because the familiarity of the word
is misinterpreted as being regular.
Although it is not necessary to understand that a word is irregular to be able to
pronounce it, the same is not true when it comes to clear, direct, teaching of reading and
writing skills. In order to implement synthetic phonics programs, teachers must be able to
recognize words that can be successfully decoded (e.g., “dog”) from those that cannot (e.g.,
“one”). But unfortunately, classroom observations have revealed that teachers frequently
give children frustrating instructions by asking them to “sound out” words that are, at least
partially, irregular (Spear-Swerling & Brucker 2004).
McCutchen et al. (2002a) examined the potential benefits of increasing teachers’
reading-related knowledge on the reading outcomes of students in kindergarten. Their data
showed that improving knowledge of English word structure during a 2-week summer
workshop was associated with greater amounts of class time dedicated to teaching
phonological awareness in the following school year (compared to a control group).
Moreover, it was reported that kindergarten teachers who used more explicit methods of
teaching the alphabetic principle, regardless of condition, had students who could read more
words at the end of the year and who scored higher on measures of phonological awareness.
Studies of teacher training lend further support for the relationship between teacher
phonological awareness, phonics knowledge, and student reading acquisition. Spear-
Swerling and Brucker (2004) examined the effects of a university language arts course on
the reading-related knowledge of preservice teachers. During the first phase, a group of
preservice teachers was given 6 hours of instruction on the importance of explicit,
systematic teaching of word decoding to early readers; this included information pertaining
to phonemic awareness, linguistic terminology, common syllable types, and phonetically
irregular words. Pre- and post-tests indicated that teachers who received the intervention
had increased reading-related knowledge compared to a control group. During the second
phase, a subset of preservice teachers from the experimental group tutored children in grade
2. At the end of the study, teachers’ post-test scores of word knowledge correlated with
children’s advancement in word decoding. The fact that the pre-test scores (taken as a proxy
of general aptitude) showed no correlation with student learning, led Spear-Swerling and
Brucker to conclude that it was the reading-related knowledge itself that was empirically
linked to student reading ability. It is possible that preservice teachers with greater aptitudes
for learning (and thus higher scores on the post-test reading-related knowledge tasks) were
also the most capable educators. However, other investigations have suggested this may not
be the case. For instance, McCutchen et al. (2002a) included a cultural literacy test as a
measure of general knowledge in addition their language measures. They found that
teachers’ general cultural knowledge was not associated with how well they performed on
Parents’ reading-related knowledge 203
the language measures, indicating that it is not breadth of knowledge, but specifically
reading-related knowledge that is associated with successful literacy instruction.
McCutchen et al. concluded that their results established a causal relationship between
teacher reading-related knowledge and student reading ability.
In sum, three skill sets have been the source of much inquiry in teachers. The first,
knowledge of children's literature, seems to target children’s language comprehension. The
remaining two skill sets, phonological awareness and phonics knowledge (hereafter referred
to as reading-related knowledge) seem to target children’s decoding ability.
Parental contribution to literacy
Parental involvement in educatio n is a key predictor of student achievement; this
relationship is especially salient during the early elementary school years (Eccles &
Harold 1996). General ly, parenta l involvement is defined i n terms of time spent
volunteering in the school, atten ding paren t–teacher conferences, and participating in
school events (National Reading Panel 2000). In addit ion to these activities, the ma jority
of parents also see themselves as being primarily responsible for their children’s reading
success (Evans et al. 2004).
Sénéchal et al. (1998; Sénéchal & LeFevre 2002) examined the relationship between
three variables: (1) parents’ knowledge of storybook titles, (2) direct literacy instruction
provided by parents, and (3) children’s oral and written language skills. For both
kindergarten (n=110) and grade 1 (n=47) children, storybook reading was associated
with oral language skills, but not with written language skills. Only parent-reported
teaching made a significant contribution to reading and writing skills.
Jordan et al. (2000) were also interested in the role of parental teaching. They
implemented Project Early Access to Success in Education (EASE), with the objective of
improving home literacy support. Training sessions were held once a month for 5 months
for the parents of 248 kindergarten children in the Midwestern USA. During these sessions,
a trained parent–educator introduced the monthly theme and provided parents with a take-
home guide. Once a week, teachers would send home scripted parent–child activities that
complemented the topic for that month. The five themes included vocabulary enrichment,
personal event narratives, storybook narratives, discussing information rich books, and
learning letters and sounds. The degree of parental participation was positively correlated
with the degree of improvement observed in the children. Also, children with the lowest
language scores at pre-test were able to acquire the targeted linguistic skills at a faster rate
when their parents participated in Project EASE.
The evidence to date suggests that reading-related knowledge in teachers plays an
important role in effective reading instruction and that, in many families, informal teaching
is taking place in the home prior to, or in addition to, the lessons being taught in school.
However, very little is presently known about parents’ reading-related knowledge. This
study aims to deepen the current understanding of parent content knowledge and its
association to children’s reading ability. We measured parents’ reading-related knowledge
(phonological awareness, phonics knowledge), knowledge of children’s literature, and
cultural knowledge in relation to child measures of receptive vocabulary, oral expression,
literacy development, and math skill. In particular, the current study examined the
hypothesis that parents’ reading-related knowledge is positively correlated with child
measures involving literacy development (letter–word reading and sound awareness).
Indeed, we argue that parents’ reading-related knowledge is a specialized skill in relation to
204 M. Ladd et al.
child literacy and that it exists independently of the child’s general verbal ability, the
storybook reading happening in the home, and the general cultural knowledge held by
parents. To demonstrate this discriminant validity, we also included child measures
(vocabulary and math skills) that were less likely to be directly influenced by parents’
reading-related knowledge and parental measures (cultural knowledge) that were less likely
to directly affect child reading outcomes.
The dyads were composed of children in kindergarten and grade 1 and the parent/guardian
who identified him or herself as the principal reader in the home. The principal reader was
defined as the person most likely to read to the child at home. Seventy-one children (28
females and 43 males) and their parent or guardian (62 mothers, seven fathers, and two
consequently, one father was identified as guessing on the ART (score of −0.04). He and
his daughter were subsequently removed from further analyses. The remaining sample
contained 70 parent–child dyads.
The children were recruited from several elementary schools located in southern Ontario
and Quebec. All children and parents who participated were proficient in English. The
average age of the children at the time of testing was 5 years and 10 months (M=
69.64 months, SD=5.22, range=61–93 months), and the average age of parents in this
sample was 37 years (SD=6.55; range=26–67). Most children lived with both biological
parents (87.1% of parents were married or engaged). The remaining children lived with
parents who were divorced or separated (4.3%), single (5.7%), or widowed (2.9%).
Annual family income is reported in Table 1. As indicated in the table, the majority of the
sample represents middle-class families, with 54.3% of families reporting an annual income
of more than $50,000, and 20.0% reporting an income of more than $110,000. Parents were
also asked to report the number of years spent in formal schooling, beginning with kindergarten.
On average, parents completed 16 years of education (SD=2.79, range=10–24).
The child data was collected as a part of a larger study, in which 232 children from pre-
kindergarten, ki ndergarten, and grade 1 participated. Letters of invitation were sent
home with the children and parents who indicated their in ter est in suppo rti ng the
current project were subsequently mailed the ques tionn aire. In all, 1 62 parent
questionnaires were mailed out. Parents who indicated they were interested in
participating but who did not return the questionnaire within 4 weeks were sent one
reminder p ostcard. The final return r ate was 43.8%.
The children were asked to complete a short series of tasks in order to assess their
reading development, receptive vocabulary, oral expression, and mathematics knowledge.
Research assistants were trained to administer the tasks in accordance with the standardized
testing procedures. The data collection took place in a one-to-one setting at elementary schools
in the form of two 20–25-min sessions. The tasks were completed in the following order during
Hereafter referred to as “parents” for the purpose of clarity
Parents’ reading-related knowledge 205
session 1: Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test, Fourth Edition (PPVT), Woodcock Johnson III
Tests of Achievement (WJ) letter–word identification, WJ applied problems. Likewise, for
session 2, the tasks were completed as follows: Oral Written and Language Scales (OWLS) oral
expression, WJ sound awareness. The order of first appearance of the two sessions was
counterbalanced over all participants so that an equal number of children started with sessions 1
and 2. In all tasks, children’s responses were recorded discreetly and positive feedback was not
contingent on response accuracy. The children were given a sticker, hockey card, or pencil at
the end of each session in appreciation for their time.
Parents w ere asked to complete a brief questionnaire m easuring reading-related
knowledge, print exposure, and general knowledge. In return for their participation, parents
were allowed to select one children’s book from a list of available titles and a $10 gift
certificate for a local bookstore or movie theater. When the questionnaire was piloted with
graduate students (n=15) it took approximately 15 min to complete. Parents were explicitly
asked to fill out the questionnaire without consulting outside sources or support. They were
also asked to list the start and end times on their questionnaires. On average, parents
reported that it took approximately 14.5 min to complete.
Reading subtasks In order to assess reading ability, the children completed two subtests of
the Woodcock Johnson III Tests of Achievement (Woodcock et al. 2001): letter–word
identification and sound awareness. These child measures were chosen because they are
believed to be sensitive to very early literacy skills (McCutchen et al. 2002a). The WJ has
been tested for both validity and reliability (Woodcock et al. 2001), and is widely used in
reading research (Mather et al. 1991).
During the letter–word identification task, children were asked to name printed letters
and read words that progress gradually from simple, high frequency words (e.g., “keep”,
“said”, and “with”) to more complex, low frequency words (e.g., “debris”, “paraphernalia”,
and “municipality”). Scores on this task have typically been used as a proxy for reading
ability (Shrank et al. 2001).
The sound awareness measure involves the analysis and synthesis of phonemes (Shrank
et al. 2001). The questions were presented verbally and children were asked to complete
rhyming and deletion tasks. During the rhyming subtask, the researcher labeled three
pictures for the children and then asked them to point out the two pictures that rhyme.
10,000.00 7 10.0
30,000.00 4 5.7
50,000.00 12 17.1
70,000.00 9 12.9
90,000.00 7 10.0
110,000.00 8 11.4
130,000.00 8 11.4
>141,000.00 6 8.6
Total 61 87.1
Missing 9 12.9
Total 70 100.0
Table 1 Reported annual income
for parent–child dyads
206 M. Ladd et al.
Second, the children were asked to complete a phrase with a word that rhymes. For
example, “Come and see, it is a ____”. A correct response would be one that rhymes with
“see”, such as “bee”, “tree”, or “key”. For the deletion subtask, children were asked to say a
word, but leave off one part (e.g., “Say fireman without saying fire” [man], or “Say
swimmer without the /er/” [swim]).
Receptive vocabulary The children completed the PPVT (Dunn & Dunn 2007). The PPVT
provides a standardized norm of receptive vocabulary for individuals aged 2 years to age
90. The receptive vocabulary task was selected because of the positive relationship between
reading ability and vocabulary that has been recorded in the literature (e.g., Ouellette 2006;
Sénéchal et al. 1998; Stanovich & Cunningham 1997). During this activity, the researcher
showed the child a set of four illustrations and verbally stated a target word. The child then
indicated which of the pictures corresponded to the target word. The task ended when the
child failed to correctly identify eight or more words in a set.
Oral expression The OWLS was used to assess the children’s comprehension and use of
spoken language (Carrow-Woolfolk 1995). Similar to the PPVT, the raw score for the
OWLS Expression scale was converted to a standardized score. The task has been normed
for individuals between 5 and 21 years old. The oral expression scale is comprised of 96
items and two example questions. For each item, the researcher presents the child with a
visual stimulus (pictures or written words) and asks the child to answer a question, to
complete a sentence, or to generate a sentence. The task gradually increases in complexity,
beginning with simple sentence completion.
Mathematics knowledge The children completed the Applied Problems test, also from the
WJ III Achievement Battery (Woodcock et al. 2001). The test is a measure of quantitative
reasoning, math achievement, and math knowledge. Questions progressed from simple
(e.g., put your finger on the box with two kittens) to more complex (e.g., three people
each have $4.00, how much money do they have all together?).
Reading-related knowledge The tasks were adapted from the materials described in
Cunningham et al. (2004). Parents were given a list of 11 words and asked to select one of
four multiple choice answers in order to indicate the number of speech sounds contained in
each word. They were provided with an example in order to illustrate the purpose of the
task. In this case, the word meat, which has three different sounds: /m/ea/t/ was selected to
demonstrate that the number of sounds a word are not necessarily equivalent to the number
of letters (four) or number of syllables (one) in a word.
The irregular words task measures parents’ ability to detect phonetically regular and
irregular words (phonics knowledge). Given a list of 37 words, parents were asked to circle
the words that contained irregular letter–sound conversion rules (Cunningham et al. 2004).
They were also provided with an example (“island”) which does not conform to
conventional spelling rules. Scores were calculated by summing the number of correctly
identified words out of 37 (therefore, parents were given credit for both selecting the
irregular words and avoiding the regular words). The raw scores for phonological
awareness and phonics knowledge were summed to create a parent reading-related
Parents’ reading-related knowledge 207
Print exposure Parents were also provided with two checklists to measure print exposure:
the Author Recognition Test was adapted from Martin-Chang and Gould (2008; see also
Stanovich & West 1989) and the Title Recognition Test (TRT) was taken from Cunningham
et al. (2004). The Author Recognition Test-Revised (ART-R) contained of a list of popular
adult authors from a wide range of genres. Parents were asked to identify the authors that
they recognized and were told that the list contained foils (non-authors) to discourage
guessing. The ART-R consisted of 75 target authors and 25 foils.
The TRT contained a list of popular children’s storybook titles. Once again, parents were
asked to identify real titles from a list containing foils. The TRT had a total of 35 target storybook
titles and 15 foils. Both the ART and TRT have a well-documented association with reading
engagement for adult books and storybook reading, respectively (Cipielewski & Stanovich
1992;Cunningham&Stanovich1997;Echolsetal.1996; Martin-Chang & Gould 2008;
Stanovich & We st 1989). Wh en the TRT has been completed by parents in previous
studies (e.g., Sénéchal et al. 2008), the results have correlated with othe r measu res of
hom e literacy such as reported frequency of bedtime reading, library visits, and exposure
to children's books.
In order to calculate the ART-R and TRT scores, the number of correctly identified authors/
titles (e.g., 22) was divided by the number of possible correct authors/titles (e.g., 75) to produce
a real-author/title ratio. The number of foils that were checked off (e.g., 1) was then divided by
the total number of foils (e.g., 25), before being subtracted from the author/title ratio (such that
[22/75]− [1/25]=0.25). Therefore, parents were credited for both the number of correctly
identified authors/titles as well as the number of foils that were not identified.
General knowledge A modified version of the Cultural Knowledge Checklist (CKC; Stanovich
proxy measure designed to reveal individual differences in cultural awareness (Stanovich &
Cunningham 1993). Past research has demonstrated that CKC scores are highly correlated with
other measures of general knowledge (Cunningham & Stanovich 1997; Stanovich &
Cunningham 1993) and with high school grade-point average (Stanovich & Cunningham
1993). For this task, parents were asked to check off the names of famous artists, entertainers,
military leaders/explorers, musicians/composers, philosophers, and scientists. Foils were
included in the list in order to detect guessing. The CKC score was calculated in a similar
manner to the ART-R and TRT scores. The measure of cultural knowledge was included to test
whether parent general knowledge predicts child reading ability above and beyond measures of
reading-related knowledge. For all three checklist measures (ART-R, TRT, CKC), parents
identified fewer than one foil on average (M<0.6, range=0–5).
The complete lists for all of the parent measures (Phoneme Segmentation Task, Irregular
Words task, ART-R, TRT, and CKC) can be found in the Appendix along with the selection
rate per item.
Table 2 shows the means, standard deviations, and ranges for all child and parent measures.
As indicated in Table 2, the children in this sample scored slightly above average on certain
The original ART-R contained 75 targets and 75 foils (Martin-Chang & Gould 2008). The number of foils
was reduced in order to minimize the duration of the parent questionnaire.
208 M. Ladd et al.
measures. In receptive vocabulary, the sample mean (M=109.73) was higher than the
PPVT standardized norm, but still fell within one standard deviation of the expected
normal curve (M=100, SD=15; Dunn & Dunn 2007). In a ddi tion, WJ measures of letter–
word and sound awareness indicated that children in our sample tended to score
approximately 5 months above average as compared to the age-equi valent standardized
nor ms (Woodcock et al. 2001).
Parent and child correlational measures
Table 3 presents t he partia l correlations between all child and parent measures
(controlling for the age of the child, parent education, and family income). All fi ve child
measures were moderately posit ively correlated (between r=0.31 and r=0.79), howev er,
the magnitude of the associations was n ot sufficiently large to suggest that the variables
were measuring identical constructs. Thus, given that the h ypotheses of this investigation
involved correlations between specific child variables and parental reading-related
knowledge, we elected to analyze the variables separ ately rather than as a composite or
Analyses of parent measures reflected a slightly different pattern. Parent measures of
print exposure, shared storybook reading, and cultural knowledge were also positively
correlated at a moderate level (between r=0.35 and r=0.63). Conversely, the parent
measure of reading-related knowledge was not significantly related to any other parent
measures suggesting independence of this variable.
The correlational analyses indicated that there was a positive relationship between
specific parent and child measures. As can been seen in Table 3, parents' print exposure
was significantly related to children’s receptive vocabulary, but not to child measures of
letter–word knowledge, sound awareness, oral expression, or mathematics ability. The
proxy for shared storybook reading was significantly related to child measures of sound
Table 2 Mean, SD, and range for all child and parent measures
Mean SD Range Maximum score
WJ letter–word 74.53 11.35 60–126 264
WJ sound awareness 75.10 12.74 50–131 288
PPVT 109.73 12.24 73–140 160
OWLS expression 97.48 12.26 69–124 160
WJ applied problems 71.17 8.34 55–93 336
ART 0.25 0.12 0.07–0.57 1.0
TRT 0.25 0.14 0.00–0.70 1.0
CKC 0.21 0.09 0.08–0.43 1.0
RRK 33.04 4.12 22–41 48
WJ letter–word Woodcock Johnson III Tests of Achievement, letter–word identification; WJ Sound
Awareness Woodcock Johnson III Tests of Achievement, sound awareness, PPVT Peabody Picture
Vocabulary Test-Fourth edition; OWLS expression oral written and language scales, oral expression task;
WJ applied problems Woodcock Johnson III Tests of Achievement–applied problems; ART Author
Recognition Test-revised; TRT Title Recognition Test; CKC Cultural Knowledge Checklist; RRK Reading-
related knowledge; *p<0.05, **p<0.01, ***p<0.001
Parents’ reading-related knowledge 209
awareness, receptive vocabulary, oral expression, and mathematics knowledge. It is worth
noting, however, that children’s letter–word knowledge was not correlated with storybook
reading. Finally, parents' cultural knowledge was positively associated with child measures
of receptive vocabulary and oral expression.
Of central interest to the current study, it was found that parents' reading-related
knowledge was positively correlated with children’s letter–wor d knowledge, sound
awareness, and oral expression. However, parents' reading-related knowledge was not
correlated to child measures of receptive vocabulary or mathematics knowledge.
A seri es o f hierarchical regression analyses w ere conducted to examine whether the
relationships involving parental readi ng- related kno wledge were accounted for by
general verbal ability, a skill that is moderately influenced by he redity (Byrne et al.
2009). Th e PPVT can be used as an index of general verbal skill (Cunningham &
Stanovich 1997); therefore, it was entered into the regression model fi rst, followed by
parent reading-related knowledge. The β c oefficients, the sta ndard errors, and the
standardized betas are presented in Table 4. The results indicated that parent reading-
related knowledge was a signi ficant predictor of child letter–word knowledge and sound
awareness even once the c hild's general verbal skills were accounted for. However, the
same pattern did not hold for o ral expression. From a theoretical framework, it is
important that parent reading-related k nowledge contrib utes to the prediction of letter–
word knowledge and sound awareness beyond g eneral verbal ability. This finding
increases our confidence that the relationships involving parental reading-related
knowledge were n ot explained by overall levels of general verbal ability within the
biologically related dyad.
Table 3 Partial correlations between all child and parent measures, controlling for age of child, parental
education, and family income
1. Child WJ Letter–
0.795*** 0.314* 0.486*** 0.522*** 0.036 0.248 0.218 0.313**
2. Child WJ Sound
0.469*** 0.651*** 0.691*** −0.003 0.292* 0.225 0.309*
3. Child PPVT 0.528*** 0.558*** 0.463*** 0.415*** 0.403*** 0.224
4. Child Oral
0.605*** 0.238 0.267* 0.312* 0.314*
5. Child WJ
0.108 0.363** 0.249 0.239
6. Parental ART-R 0.553*** 0.631*** −0.030
7. Parental TRT 0.350*** 0.137
8. Parental CKC 0.045
9. Parental RRK
WJ Letter–Word Woodcock Johnson III Tests of Achievement, letter–word identification; WJ Sound
Awareness Woodcock Johnson III Tests of Achievement, sound awareness; PPVT Peabody Picture
Vocabulary Test-fourth edition; Oral Expression Oral Written and Language Scales, oral expression task;
WJ Applied Problems Woodcock Johnson III Tests of Achievement, applied problems; ART Author
Recognition Test, revised; TRT Title Recognition Test; CKC Cultural Knowledge Checklist; RRK Reading-
related knowledge; *p<0.05, **p<0.01, ***p<0.001
210 M. Ladd et al.
Current research suggests that reading storybooks to children is aneffectivepracticeforbuilding
vocabulary and listening skills; however, it does not provide sufficient support for the development
of reading. In terms of “the simple view” (Gough & Tunmer 1986), storybook reading fosters
language comp rehension but not deco ding. In keeping with this literature, our data show that
storybook reading significantly and positively correlated with child measures of receptive
vocabulary and oral expression. On the other hand, it did not account for t he child’sliteracy
development. This finding is consistent with previous research with both parents and teachers
(Al Otaiba 2004;Evans&Shaw2008;Evansetal.2000;Hindmanetal.2008;McCutchenet
al. 2002a, b;Scarborough&Dobrich1994;Sénéchal2006;Sénéchaletal.1998, 2008).
Reading to children was also associated with children’s increased sound awareness and
mathematics ability. It stands to reason that children who are exposed to a wide variety of
books (e.g., books that use rhymes or alliteration) might have a stronger foundation for
manipulating speech sounds, but the connection between shared storybook reading and
mathematics is more elusive. It is possible that the applied nature of the mathematics test
may have influenced this relationsh ip. The ma th test consis ted of word-based pro ble ms
(e.g., if you had three balloons and someone gave you two more, how many balloons
would you have?); perhaps children with more experience listening to stories were
better equipped to retain and manipulat e information when listen ing to word problems.
Alternatively, parents who are more likely to rea d to their children might also take a
more active role in other parenting activities (e.g., playing counting games, or involving
the children in measuring while baking) that directly impact the development of
arithmetic skills. Such questions would be interesting to pursue in future research.
Turning to the performance of the parents, we found that print exposure was highly correlated
with cultural knowledge and storybook reading. Previous studies (Stanovich & Cunnin gham
1993) have suggested that the links between print exposure and cultural knowledge may be
causal: individuals who are well-read have wider access to information pertaining to
Table 4 Summary of hierarchical regression analyses for parent reading-related knowledge predicting child
letter–word, sound awareness, oral expression, and mathematics knowledge
Letter–word Sound awareness Oral expression
b SE b β b SE b β B SE b β
Constant 47.82 11.98 30.67 12.84 35.87 11.10
PPVT 0.24 0.11 0.26* 0.41 0.12 0.39*** 0.56 0.10 0.56***
Constant 31.59 13.97 13.23 14.98 22.08 13.02
PPVT 0.18 0.11 0.20 0.34 0.12 0.33** 0.51 0.10 0.51***
RRK 0.69 0.33 0.25* 0.74 0.35 0.24* 0.59 0.30 0.20
For letter–word, R²=0.07 for step 1, Δ R²=0.06 for step 2 (p<0.05); for sound awareness R²=0.15 for step 1,
Δ R²=0.05 for step 2 (p<0.05); for oral expression, R²=0.31 for step 1, Δ R²=0.36 for step 2 (ns); for
applied problems R²=0.19 for step 1, Δ R²=0.20 for Step 2 (ns). WJ Letter-Word Woodcock Johnson III
Tests of Achievement, letter–word identification; WJ Sound Awareness Woodcock Johnson III Tests of
Achievement, sound awareness; PPVT Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test-fourth edition; oral expression oral
written and language scales, oral expression task; WJ Applied Problems Woodcock Johnson III Tests of
Achievement, applied problems; *p<0.05, **p<0.01, ***p<0.001
Parents’ reading-related knowledge 211
historically important figures and events compared to people who read less often. The positive
relationship between print exposure and storybook reading also echoes past research where
children's title recognition scores (completed by the children rather than the parents) were
correlated to parental print exposure (Sénéchal et al. 1996). In tandem, these results indicate
that parents who enjoy reading for pleasure may also enjoy reading to their children. Finally,
the positive association between parental printexposureandchildreceptivevocabularywas
also consistent with past findings (Sénéchal et al. 1996). This connection may be mediated
through parental vocabulary. Reading for pleasure has shown positive links with vocabulary
scores in adults (Martin-Chang & Gould 2008). Likewise, parents who use words that are less
common while speaking at home, tend to have children with higher vocabulary scores (Evans
et al. 2000). Therefore, parents who read more for pleasure may have better vocabularies and
be more inclined to use rare words while interacting with their children. However, this
hypothesis was beyond the scope of our study as parental vocabulary was not measured here.
The primary goal of the present investigation was to clarify the relationship between parents’
reading-related knowledge and their children’s early literacy skills. Based on the corpus of
research with teachers (e.g., McCutchen et al. 2002a, b), it was expected that parents who had
a heightened grasp of phonics knowledge and phonological awareness would have children
with better reading skills. The data reported here support this claim. Parents’ ability to count
speech sounds in words and identify words with irregular spellings was associated with their
children’s ability to name letters, read words, and manipulate speech sounds. This
relationship held even after accounting for the child’s own receptive vocabulary—a stringent
control that may have partialled out some of the shared variance in the relationship. In
comparison, after accounting for child receptive vocabulary, parental knowledge about word
structure was no longer predictive of the child’s oral expression. The results of the current
investigation provide evidence that the reading-related knowledge of parents has a greater, or
more direct, impact on children’s reading abilities than their expressive language skills. As to
the direction of this relationship, it is possible that parents with superior knowledge of
English word structure are better positioned to maximize the teaching opportunities that occur
in the home (such as joint writing and reading activities), or to ensure that these opportunities
occur more frequently. Such an account, while speculative, is parsimonious with the literature
on teachers’ reading-related knowledge, and thus merits further investigation.
The fact that parent reading-related knowledge and child literacy skills were linked adds a
unique contribution to the literature. However, these correlational findings must be interpreted
with caution. It is possible that overlapping aptitudes resulting from shared genetics could be
explaining parents’ apparent contributions to children’s reading achievement. Indeed, data from
twin studies suggest that the genetic influence on reading ability is considerable. Yet, these data
also reveal the important contribution of shared environment (Olson et al. 2011). For example,
Byrne et al. (2009) found stronger influences from shared environment than genetics on
measures of print knowledge, letter p honeme recognition, lett er name recognition, and print
conventions. They argued that “shared environment effects on print awareness may reflect a
very high degree of diversity in the home and preschool conditions that support, or fail to
support, this knowledge” (p.68). Related to this point, recentinvestigationshavedemonstrated
that “teacher/classroom effects”,whilemodest,accountforapproximately8%ofthevariance
in early literacy achievement, over and above genetically driven attainment (Byrne et al. 2010
If the correlations reported here were exclusively a result of shared genes, it would be difficult
to explain the parallel links between teacher skill and child learning noted elsewhere in the
literature (Mather et al. 1991;Moats&Foorman2003; Spear-Swerling & Brucker 2003).
The current study did not aim to refute the clear role that genetic predispositions play in
reading skill, but rather to complement these findings by demonstrating how parental reading-
212 M. Ladd et al.
related knowledge may contribute to the shared environmental factors that are also key to
literacy development. If the findings reported here were simply a bi-product of hereditary
endowment, then significant positive correlation should have been observed between all
parental and child measures of ability. Such a prediction was not supported by the data. Parents’
reading-related knowledge was associated with children’s letter–word reading and sound
awareness at the exclusion of other child measures (e.g., receptive vocabulary and math); while
parents’ cultural knowledge was related to children’s oral expression and mathematics ability,
but not significantly associated with children’s letter–word knowledge and sound awareness.
Limitations and future directions
This study offered a unique approach to calibrating par ent content knowledge in
relation to children’s literacy. However, s ome limitations were encountered that should
be addressed in futur e research. First, the majority of the sample population was from a
middle-class background (see Table 1). Therefore, our findings should not be generalized
to low socioeconomic communities. Future studies could examine the relationship
between parents and children from at-risk families in order to ascertain whether reading-
related knowledge is s till posi tively associated w ith literacy development in children.
Second, the age of the children in this sample (M=5 years and 10 months) may also impact
the generalizability of the findings. It is possible that the observed relationships between the
parent and child variables fade over time as the children progress through school. Perhaps in
later grades the relationship between parent reading-related knowledge and child literacy is
weaker due to the comparative influence of the classroom teacher.
Third, the current investigation used a cultural knowledge checklist as a proxy measure of
general knowledge. Previous studies have found that cultural knowledge is correlated with
other measures of general knowledge and high school grade point average (Cunningham &
Stanovich 1997; Stanovich & Cunningham 1993). Although the cultural knowledge checklist
has been fruitfully employed in several other research studies (McCutchen et al. 2002a, b), an
additional standardized measure of intelligence would add depth to our current understanding
about parent general knowledge in relation to child literacy. It is possible that the cultural
knowledge checklist is also culturally skewed; individuals from different backgrounds may
have scored lower on items that were not representative of their country of origin. This would
result in a lower estimate of general knowledge and could bias the results for some parents.
Future research should explore other means of obtaining culturally representative measures of
general knowledge that are also efficient and cost effective.
Finally, the c orrela tional natu re o f the current stu dy do es not allow us to infer
causation . A lthoug h experimental evidence f rom school-based research would suggest
that teacher reading-related knowledge is directly associated with student li teracy
(McCutchen et al. 2002a, b), this relationship must also be tested with a parent
population. Neverthel ess, the current in vestigation is an important first-step in establishing a
link between parent reading-related knowledge and child literacy.
The simple view of reading (Gough & Tunmer 1986) argues that decoding and language
comprehension are fundamental to children's reading because they make independent
contributions to reading development. The data reported here suggest that this model can be
adapted to be used as a basis for creating effective home literacy practices. By targeting
different aspects of parental knowledge, it may be possible to enhance both components of
Parents’ reading-related knowledge 213
the simple view of reading. Our findings add to the corpus of literature showing that asking
parents to merely read to their children is not sufficient to develop decoding skills.
Conversely, parent reading-related knowledge does not appear to be related to children’s
language skills. It is essential to support both aspects of the simple view; therefore, by
targeting parent reading-related knowledge in addition to storybook reading, it may be
possible to enhance the effectiveness of home literacy practices.
Many home-based literacy programs encourage parents to engage in decoding and
storybook activities with their children (Jordan et al. 2000). The current investigation has
shown that parents vary in how much they know about irregular spelling patterns (phonics
knowledge) and the auditory composition of words (phonological awareness). It is likely,
then, that parents with increased content knowledge are more effective when helping their
children at home. Although this study focused on children with average reading skills, the
same logic would hold for students at-risk for reading failure. If poor readers benefit from
explicit instruction at school (Ehri et al. 2009; Rupley et al. 2009), it stands to reason that
receiving clear and accurate assistance at home would result in comparable gains.
Therefore, just as there has been wide spread public support encouraging all parents (not
just parents of children at-risk) to read to their children, future work may endorse public
awareness campaigns educating parents on the importance of reading-related knowledge. If
this were the case, parents could be taught about the component parts of reading-related
knowledge through mediums such as parent information nights or informational packages
sent from school. Although this mandate might seem onerous, similar programs have been
effective for not only promoting storybook reading, but also increasing awareness about
homework assistance, conversing with/singing to young children, and internet safety (e.g.,
Government of Alberta: Education 2011).
Educating parents about the basic properties of phonological awareness and phonics is
recommended because, unless taught, reading-related skills are not obvious. Parents who
had lower reading-related knowledge scores in our sample were not necessarily poor
readers themselves. In fact, we found that parental print exposure and general knowledge
were independent of reading-related knowledge (for similar findings, see Mc Cutchen
et al. 2002a). This indicates that parents who are well read and knowl edgeable about
world events do not necessarily have the expertise to support child liter acy. This
finding con verges with the teacher research (Hatcher et al. 2006; McCutchen et al.
2002; Spear-Swerling & Bru cker 2004) arguing that the content knowledge required to
teach reading is fundamentally different from other instructional s kills.
In sum, an overview of the pattern of relationships between parental knowledge and
child abilities suggests that parent reading-related knowledge is a specialized skill that holds
a unique role in relation to child literacy. Furthermore, it shows that reading-related
knowledge is comprised of a distinctive body of expertise that exists independently from
parents’ own reading habits and general cultural knowledge. The evidence presented here
suggests that acting directly on the reading-related knowledge of parents may be an as-of-
yet unexamined strategy in the development of children’s literacy.
We wish to thank all of the parents and children who participated in this study and gratefully acknowledge
financial support from FQRSC to the second author. We wish to also thank Holly Recchia and two
anonymous reviewers from Annals of Dyslexia for their careful reading and thoughtful comments on an
earlier draft of this paper.
214 M. Ladd et al.
The complete list of materials for all parent measures
Word Percent identified (%)
Table 5 Percentage of correctly
counted phonemes on the
phonemic segmentation task
Irregular word Percent identified (%)
Table 6 Percentage of correctly
identified irregular words on the
irregular words task
Foil word Percent identified (%) Foil word Percent identified (%)
Ant 1.45 Pal 2.90
Bed 1.45 Rebate 20.29
Book 5.80 Run 1.45
But 2.90 Sheep 5.80
Chunk 7.25 Son 14.49
Cake 5.80 Sugar 49.28
Cup 2.90 Swim 0.00
Dog 1.45 Teacher 18.84
Flower 15.94 Ten 2.90
Girl 7.25 Tree 1.45
Hare 23.19 Turn 0.00
Jump 4.35 Watch 28.99
Make 1.45 Want 11.59
Table 7 Percentage of incorrectly
identified regular words on the
irregular words task
Parents’ reading-related knowledge 215
Table 8 Percentage recognition of correctly identified items on the author recognition test
Author Percent recognition Author Percent recognition
V. C. Andrews 71.43 Robert Fulghum 20.00
Isaac Asimov 35.71 Diana Gabaldon 12.86
Margaret Atwood 78.57 Elizabeth George 7.14
Jean M. Auel 8.57 Stephen J. Gould 8.57
Russell Banks 7.14 Sue Grafton 25.71
David Baldacci 11.43 Andrew Greeley 8.57
Carol Berg 2.86 John Grisham 80.00
Pierre Berton 25.71 Alex Haley 24.29
Maeve Binchy 31.43 Frank Herbert 2.86
Judy Blume 78.57 S. E. Hinton 15.71
Dan Brown 64.29 John Jakes 4.29
Barbara Cartland 11.43 Erica Jong 11.43
Agatha Christie 91.43 Wayne Johnston 0.00
Noam Chomsky 18.57 Robert Jordan 4.29
Wayson Choy 1.43 Laurie King 0.00
Tom Clancy 81.43 Stephen King 100.00
Arthur C.Clarke 31.43 Naomi Klein 8.57
James Clavell 17.14 Sophie Kinsella 18.57
Jackie Collins 75.71 Dean Koontz 60.00
Stephen Coonts 24.29 Judith Krantz 67.14
Patricia Cornwell 31.43 Louis L’Amour 18.57
Robertson Davies 21.43 Margaret Laurence 25.71
Jeffery Eugenides 1.43 Ursula LeGuin 7.14
Janet Evanovich 14.29 C. S. Lewis 60.00
Timothy Findley 12.86 Robert Ludlum 54.29
George R.R. Martin 0.00 Carol Shields 7.14
Rohinton Mistry 7.14 Sidney Sheldon 62.86
Ann Marie McDonald 7.14 Danielle Steel 92.86
James Michener 14.29 Amy Tan 20.00
Christopher Moore 1.43 Miriam Toews 4.29
Michael Moore 25.71 Alvin Toffler 1.43
Alice Munro 22.86 J. R. R. Tolkien 72.86
M. Scott Peck 18.57 Penny Vincenzi 7.14
Kate Pullinger 2.86 Alice Walker 12.86
Daniel Quinn 11.43 Joseph Wambaugh 2.86
Anne Rice 78.57 Bob Woodward 1.43
Mordecai Richler 58.57 Paul Zindel 7.14
Robert J. Sawyer 11.43
216 M. Ladd et al.
Foil author Percent identified
Christopher Barr 0.00
Gary Beauchamp 0.00
Lauren Benjamin 0.00
Thomas Bever 0.00
Elliot Blass 2.86
Jennifer Butterworth 0.00
Katherine Carpenter 1.43
Suzanne Clarkson 4.29
Edward Cornell 2.86
W. Patrick Dickson 4.29
Robert Emery 12.86
Martin Ford 0.00
Howard Gardner 2.86
Sheryl Green 0.00
Mimi Hall 1.43
Frank Kiel 1.43
Pricilla Levy 1.43
Morton Mendelson 2.86
James Morgan 0.00
David Perry 0.00
Robert Siegler 10.00
Mark Strauss 1.43
Tracy Tomes 0.00
Ava Wight 2.86
Steve Yussen 2.86
Table 9 Percentage recognition
of incorrectly identified foils on
the author recognition test
Table 10 Percentage recognition of correctly identified items on the title recognition test
Title Percent recognition
Are you my mother? 57.14
Bartholomew and the Oobleck 14.29
Because I love you 55.71
Bedtime for Frances 27.14
Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see? 45.71
Chicka chicka boom boom 70.00
Click clack moo 32.86
Cloudy with a chance of meatballs 42.86
Cups for sale 5.71
Parents’ reading-related knowledge 217
Table 10 (continued)
Title Percent recognition
Danny and the dinosaur 25.71
Dog heaven 4.29
Father bear comes home 14.29
Flat Stanley 37.14
Follow the drinking gourd 4.29
Gerald McBoing Boing 21.43
Goodnight moon 64.29
Guess how much I love you 60.00
Harold and the purple crayon 30.00
House on East Eighty-Eighth Street 1.43
If you give a pig a pancake 52.86
Kofi and his magic 2.86
Moo, Baa, LA, LA, LA 15.71
Oh, the places you’ll go 44.29
Runaway bunny 34.29
The adventures of chatterer the squirrel 0.00
The fall of Freddie and the leaf 1.43
The going to bed book 12.86
The last of the really great Whangdoodles 0.00
The story of Ferdinand 14.29
Where the wild things are 64.29
Table 11 Percentage recognition of incorrectly identified foils on the title recognition test
Foil title Percent identified
Backyard safari 10.00
Blame it on Billy 2.86
Blueberry kazoo 1.43
Cootie catchers 4.29
Down by David’s pond 2.86
Down by the sea 15.71
Grandmother’s surprise 2.86
My friend the mailman 4.29
Open up 0.00
The clock with no hands 1.43
The colors of me 10.00
The muffin maker 0.00
The rabbit acrobats 0.00
Wacky Wendell 4.29
What rhymes with orange? 8.57
218 M. Ladd et al.
Table 12 Percentage recognition of correctly identified items on the cultural knowledge checklist
Name Percent recognition Name Percent recognition
Artist items Entertainer items
Alexander Calder 8.57 Rowan Atkinson 67.14
Paul Cezanne 42.86 Judd Apatow 15.71
John Constable 7.14 Fred Astaire 91.43
Salvador Dali 54.29 Lionel Barrymore 12.86
Helen Frankenthaler 0.00 Sarah Bernhardt 48.57
Paul Gauguin 30.00 Humphrey Bogart 97.14
Winslow Homer 10.00 Charlie Chaplin 100.00
Henri Matisse 48.57 Don Cheadle 40.00
Jackson Pollack 38.57 Greta Garbo 85.71
Diego Riviera 4.29 Katherine Hepburn 97.14
Norman Rockwell 75.71 Harry Houdini 90.00
Auguste Rodin 31.43 Lorne Michaels 40.00
Jørn Utzon 0.00 Vaslav Najinsky 1.43
Jan Vermeer 10.00 Paul Robeson 4.29
Andy Warhol 81.43 Will Rogers 61.43
Andrew Wyeth 1.43 Mae West 80.00
Military leader and explorer items Musician/composer items
Omar Bradley 10.00 Jann Arden 90.00
Romeo Dallaire 32.86 Louis Armstrong 81.43
Francis Drake 22.86 Irving Berlin 44.29
Leif Erikson 24.29 Aaron Copland 17.14
David Farragut 1.43 Duke Ellington 50.00
Robert E. Lee 48.57 Stephen Foster 21.43
Douglas MacArthur 50.00 George Gershwin 55.71
Peter MacKay 25.71 Woody Guthrie 30.00
Ferdinand Magellan 57.14 George Harrison 85.71
George C. Marshall 8.57 Charles Ingus 0.00
Horatio Nelson 14.29 Scott Joplin 14.29
George Patton 60.00 Francis Scott Key 11.43
John Pershing 1.43 Gustav Mahler 14.29
Colin Powell 78.57 Cole Porter 32.86
Marco Polo 84.29 Arturo Sandoval 7.14
Walter Raleigh 22.86 John Phillip Sousa 15.71
Philosopher items Scientist items
Edmund Burke 7.14 Neils Bohr 17.14
Rene Descartes 42.86 José Bonaparte 8.57
John Dewey 14.29 Marie Curie 71.43
Siddhartha Gautama 7.14 Michael Faraday 14.29
Friedrich Hegel 12.86 Enrico Fermi 1.43
Thomas Hobbes 11.43 Werner Heisenberg 2.86
L. Ron Hubbard 25.71 James Clerk Maxwell 1.43
David Hume 17.14 Gregor Mendel 14.29
Parents’ reading-related knowledge 219
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Damion Hirsch 1.43 Parker Drummond 0.00
Robert Villante 1.43 Franklin Tessier 4.29
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