The sooner the better


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 theoretical 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 system 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, occupation, 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 importance 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 cultural 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 family’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 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 children, 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 preschoolers (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 reading 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 competencies, 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 ability to segment conversational speech signals are predictors of later language development (Newman, Ratner, Jusczyk, Jusczyk, & Dow, 2006). As children develop, language comprehension becomes increasingly important. For instance, in a study conducted by Flax, Realpe-Bonilla, Roesler, Choudhury, and Benasich (2009), children’s language comprehension 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 outperform children with weak early linguistic skills on assessments 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 children’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 linguistic development.

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 competencies (e.g., Niklas & Schneider, 2013; Sénéchal & LeFevre, 2002). For instance, Niklas and Schneider (2013) demonstrated 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 awareness as well as the further development of literacy competencies even when controlling for a range of child and family background variables. Sénéchal and LeFevre (2002, 2014) showed specific associations of different aspects of the HLE with children’s linguistic 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 environment 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 construct. 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 environment are cumulative over time (Sénéchal & LeFevre, 2001; cf. Stanovich, 1986). In addition to the frequency of reading and quality of reading (Lever & Sénéchal, 2011; L. M. Phillips, Norris, & Anderson, 2008; Sim & Berthelsen, 2014), the onset of reading 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 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 better 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 control variables for family or child characteristics were included in this analysis. Given the small sample size, the young sample, 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 linguistic 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 contexts (Niklas, Tayler, & Schneider, 2015). Although these studies indicate that starting shared reading 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 parents reading to them from a particular age.

The Current Study

Research has shown that literacy-based parent–child interactions 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 analyzing the onset of reading (e.g., DeBaryshe, 1993; Niklas, Cohrssen, Tayler, & Schneider, 2016), there are still questions 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 controlling 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 significantly when controlling for child and family characteristics. 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 consent to conduct the study was obtained from the center coordinators, directors, and teachers. Each family registered as using the various early childhood settings was invited to participate 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 times. 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 language 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 assessment 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.