You are here

Guest blog by Cathy Nutbrown: “… and parents are a child’s first and best teacher “

Image (multiple): 
Wednesday, 10 April, 2019

“We want to create a generation of confident learners – and parents are a child’s first and best teacher, helping to get them talking and communicating before they reach the classroom. You don’t need expensive books or toys to help children develop literacy skills. It can be as simple as reading a library book together or making up your own stories – little interactions can have a huge impact.”

These were the words of Children and Families Minister, Nadhim Zahawi who, on Monday 8th April, launched the latest government campaign to promote more home learning, the Chat, Play, Read campaign. He continued:

“Children from lower income families are more likely to fall behind at school compared to their peers and once you’re behind it’s hard to catch up. That’s why we are launching a major new campaign later this year to help parents incorporate Chat, Play and Read into their daily life, putting their children on track to succeed.”

The new campaign was widely reported in the media with one headline about 100,000 children under five years learning “nothing” at home.  We know, of course, that this can’t be so. All children – all children – learn things from the adults and silbings that they live with.  That said, the effects of poverty and the growing number of families living in poverty with inevitably inhibit what families who are struggling with the basics of a home, food and warmth, can do. But still, no child begins their preschool or school knowing “nothing”. Not all children learn the same things, and some have fewer opportunities than others, but all children begin school knowing something – and they learn this from their families and communities.

The TES story on 8th April had the title: No learning at home for 100K under-5s, DfE research finds. Scary stuff, if true. But read between the lines – or read the full report and we discover that this isn’t actually what is being claimed. All this builds on a DfE report published in collaboration with the National Literacy Trust (2018) which highlighted differences in children’s  literacy abilities as they entered Key Stage 1. The report said:

“The improvements in children’s outcomes at age 5 that we have seen since 2013 are testament to the commitment and dedication of early years practitioners across the country. It is also true that virtually all parents want the best for their children. Despite this, we need to do more – 28% of children currently leave reception without the communication and literacy skills they need to thrive. We need to support language development in all areas of a child’s life, not just the hours they spend in early years settings”. (DfE, 2918: 4)

Use of visual media has been highlighted as a reason for children reading less; the 2017 Department for Education interview survey of 5,693 parents in England with children aged 0 to 14 reported that:

“Children aged 0 to 5 living in more deprived areas watched more television, videos or DVDs (57% of children in the most deprived areas watched for more than one hour a day, compared to 37% in the least deprived areas”. (DfE, 2017)

Where home learning was concerned – the survey reported that :

“Looking at books or reading was the home learning activity most frequently carried out with children aged 0 to 5, with 70% of parents reporting that someone at home does this activity at least once a day with their child. The next most frequently conducted home learning activities were learning songs, poems or nursery rhymes (59% of parents reported that someone at home does this at least once a day with their child), and learning numbers or to count (58% of parents reported that someone at home does this at least once a day with their child) (Table 6.2).” (DfE, 2017)

The technical reports seem to indicate rather narrow questions – the report indicates “Looking at books or reading” – of which 92% of parents report doing this at least once a week (70% at least once a day, 6% said they never did).

The next items seem to be worded in a way that might lead to a “no” response. They ask how frequently parents engage in the following with their children:

  • Learning songs, poems and nursery rhymes
  • L earning numbers of to count
  • Learning the alphabet or recognising words

Between 89% - 73% parents reported they did these things frequently, 59% - 51% regularly and 14%-8% never.

Painting and drawing at home were the least frequently reported activities with 78% reporting this as a daily activity (26% weekly, 14% never).

From this we can see that a high percentage of parents report engaging in literacy activities at home either daily or weekly. However, I think it is worth considering how these questions were phrased. Would different wording have given a different outcome? Some parents may not say that they emphasised learning the alphabet – but how many might say that they played with magnetic letters or encouraged children to look at print when they went to the shops? They may not say that they make a point of having their children learn songs, poems and nursery rhymes – but how many might say that they sing and share songs, rhymes  and books together?  How the question was asked could provide a different response. Further, these questions were asked to parents of children ages 0-5 years, but there was no differentiation according to the age of children – few parents will make a point of their 6-month-old learning the alphabet, or songs, or counting. But many parents may well have responded positively if asked: “do you sing and read with your baby, or toddler or young child?”

I am suggesting here that a fairly crude instrument can only give crude responses, and so to find that a high percentage of parents are engaging their children in literacy and numeracy at home is positive. The question is, how do settings and services meaningfully engage parents who are not reporting such home learning activities? I suggest that one answer lies in good resourcing of settings for home visiting and group events to support parents around home learning. This means funding for books and other literacy and numeracy engagement, play and painting and drawing materials and ideas. It also crucially means well-informed and confident practitioners who can work with individual families in their own homes as in groups hosted by the setting.

Whilst the new government campaign might well promote and support parents in talking, reading and playing with their children, this is also an opportunity to highlight the work that early years settings do to help parents become more confident and more resourceful in supporting their young children to become readers and writers.  They loan books for families to share at home, they run workshops for parents to engage in many different activities using words, rhymes and talk. 

I’ve recently visited settings in the North of England where amazing work is being done in diverse local communities, by staff who know that collaboration with parents is key to enhancing children’s developing literacy. Important work is being done by settings and by charities to support parents, and to build on what they already do at home.

Parents are their children’s first teachers. I have never met a parent who did not want the best for their child. I have never known a parent – when offered the opportunity to learn more about how they can support their children, has not taken up the opportunity.  We need to read behind the headlines, look at the stories behind such surveys, build on the relationships that staff in early years are committed to developing and sustaining in inclusive ways so that all parents are supported in helping their young children to learn in fun and meaningful ways at home.

Cathy Nutbrown is President of Early Education


Department for Education. (2017). Childcare and Early Years Survey of Parents in England, 2017 (No. SFR 73/2017, 21 December 2017, fieldwork January – August 2017). Retrieved from _data/file/669857/SFR73_2017_Text.pdf

Department for Education and National Literacy Trust (2018) Improving the home learning environment A behaviour change approach London: DfE/NLT.

Some Links to examples of work with families

Peeple, Peep Learning together Programme

National Children’s Bureau – Early Childhood Unit 

The ORIM network – Opportunities, Recognition, Interaction, Models

The Learning Together series of leaflets for parents from Early Education are free to download.