Home Literacy Environment: the Fundamentals of Language Development
Speech and language are central skills when it comes to communicating with others. The first year of development is a very intensive period for language acquisition and children have proved to be incredibly rapid language learners. During this time, the brain promptly changes, depending on the exposition to language children undergo.
Early childhood is a crucial time in one’s life to learn linguistic competencies as well as socio-emotional ones. The first learning environment is a pivotal variable in the development of children’s abilities and educational outcomes. This environment is what we call home literacy environment (HLE). Astrid Wirth and colleagues (2019, p 2) define HLE as "a multifaceted construct comprising the current shared reading habits and more general aspects of family literacy". This set of experiences in the life of a toddler reveals favorable to language development in children. Furthermore, children's active engagement in verbal activities is in fact positively associated with their linguistic abilities and emergent literacy.
Today, one of the most widely accepted theories of language acquisition sustains the idea that children acquire language during interactions with others in the contexts in which they grow up. Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley (2003, p 7) stated that "so much is happening to children during their first three years at home, at a time when they are especially malleable and uniquely dependent on the family". Thus, the home environment can be the source of the first literacy experiences in children’s life (as firstly mentioned by Teale and Sulzby, 1986).
Experiences such as interaction with adults in writing and reading situations, exploration of print on their own, and observation of adults that model children’s literate behavior (e.g. reading the newspapers) are the kind of language-related activities we take into account when speaking of HLE. The assessment of HLE is possible by evaluating both oral-language and written-language measures in children’s language:
Knowledge of the alphabet
A well-structured HLE should consider factors regarding children’s reading skills such as quality, frequency, and the onset of reading. Moreover, other aspects regarding the family itself play a role as well: family literacy, parental reading, frequency of library visits, and the number of books in a household (Nicklas et al, 2017).
Children’s linguistic development may be strongly supported by the surrounding environment, but the role that children play in choosing their own experiences, from even an early stage of life is equally important. Children’s innate traits are in fact just as crucial in determining language acquisition and further development. Consequently, as far as children’s choices are concerned, interest and engagement in literacy activities come into play. In Whitehurst and Lonigan (1998) the authors argued that if children show interest in literacy, they are more likely to initiate shared reading interactions.
HLE is also related to the socioeconomic status (SES) of the family, which is usually measured in terms of parents’ education, occupation, and household income. In Gottfried et al. (2003), SES has revealed to be highly predictive of a broad range of outcomes such as intelligence, academic achievement, and school readiness. SES is in fact known to be primarily involved in affecting parental attitude towards literacy-related activities, which in turn play a role in shaping children’s language. Accordingly, Sénéchal et al. (1998) found a higher frequency of home literacy experiences in middle- and upper-middle-class English-speaking parents.
Within the array of parent-child literacy activities related to HLE, storybook reading has received most attention. This kind of activity is believed to significantly enhance oral and written language skills, as it supports fundamental abilities such as the acquisition of word knowledge and novel vocabulary, increased familiarity with the syntax of written language, and the awareness of written letters and words. Furthermore, shared storybook reading could give an important contribution to the development of children’s socioemotional competencies through the characters of a story. Children can in fact feel an emotional connection with characters, which constitute models of problem-solving and interaction.
Nonetheless, according to recent studies such as Puglisi et al. (2017), children’s attainments related to a supporting HLE significantly diminish if considered with respect to the abilities of children’s parents. These attainments would be partly explained under the light of genetic similarities in cognitive abilities. It is for this reason that one should not oversimplify the influence HLE can have, which is in fact a multidirectional process.
Given that a well-structured HLE and a favorable SES give contribute to language acquisition, literature on this topic focuses on the relation between HLE and the development of children’s reading skills. Sénéchal et al. (1998), distinguish two main typologies of literacy experiences children are exposed to at home, namely formal and informal literacy activities. The informal ones, on one hand, include those activities whose primary goal is the ability to decode the overall message of the print. The formal ones, on the other, include those activities which focus on the print per se. Early home literacy activities can as a matter of fact have long-term effects on children’s reading skills and developing a liking for literature. Therefore, these early experiences might be more important/essential for children once they master phonological awareness and decoding skills.
Thus, one cannot consider HLE as a linear factor: HLE is a multifaceted system, which operates on multiple levels of children’s development. HLE includes a wide range of practices, attitudes, and beliefs which are in turn defined by cognitive and motivational features of children. In conclusion, it would be of great use to consider HLE as a participating factor in children’s language development. HLE constitutes in fact the very basis for a wide range of cognitive and linguistic attainments in children’s lives.
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