ERIC Identifier: ED482051
Publication Date: 11/2003
Author: Vivian Gadsden and Aisha Ray
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Early Education and Parenting
Fathers' Role in Children's Academic Achievement and
Early Literacy. ERIC Digest.
Family involvement has been a key theme in early childhood education
for more than three decades (Fantuzzo, Tighe, & Childs, 2000). However,
because early childhood educators tend to engage more with mothers than
with fathers, the study of fathers' involvement in children's development
has been neglected. This Digest explores what is known about the role of
fathers in young children's academic achievement and early literacy.
Fathers and Infants
Early research indicated that the earlier fathers became involved with
their children's learning and socialization, the better. For example, Yarrow
et al. (1984) observed 6- to 12-month-old infants separately with mothers
and fathers at home and in a laboratory setting. They found that in 6-month-old
infants, parental attention and sensory stimulation, especially of mothers,
was associated with infant persistence. At 12 months of age, significant
results were found only in relation to paternal stimulation and boys' persistence
at practicing sensorimotor activities. Clarke-Stewart (1978) observed fathers,
mothers, and children 15, 20, and 30 months of age, at home in unstructured
and semi-structured situations. She found that the intellectual skills
of 15- to 30-month-olds (as measured by the Bayley Mental Scale at 16 and
22 months, and the MCDI at 30 months) were significantly related to the
fathers' engagement in unstructured play, fathers' positive rating of children,
the amount fathers and children interacted, and fathers' aspirations for
children's independence as measured on an age-expected questionnaire.
Early Literacy Development
In areas such as children's early reading, Gadsden and Bowman (1999),
in a critical review of research on father involvement in children's education
and schooling, conclude that fathers' participation in literacy activities,
the barriers that parents face as a result of low literacy, and their perceptions
of the role that they can play in their children's literacy development
may affect children's preparedness for school. These factors also may influence
the direct and subtle messages that fathers send to their children about
the value, achievability, and power associated with literacy, schooling,
Although mothers' education historically has been used as the primary
predictor of children's achievement, educational research increasingly
is examining the effect of father-child interaction on children's early
learning, particularly among fathers with low incomes (Gadsden, Brooks,
& Jackson, 1997). In a study of 50 low-income African American fathers
participating in fatherhood programs, Gadsden et al. examined fathers'
beliefs regarding the valuing, uses, and problems of literacy learning
for themselves and in relation to their children's early schooling. Fathers'
accounts suggested that many fathers felt challenged by the expectations
attached to parenting rolesa challenge that was exacerbated by their own
limited formal literacy capacities and their desire to support their children's
early literacy development. In addition, fathers' beliefs about their children's
educational success and future possibilities were ambivalent, often contraindicated
their practices, and sometimes were at odds with their self-perceptions
of facilitating children's literacy achievement. The researchers remind
us that low-income African American fathers are a diverse group, not only
in their literacy abilities, literacy experiences, literacy preparation,
and goals for their children, but also in their family relationships and
family resources. These and other studies suggest that a father's ability
to support his child's learning affects the child's engagement with books
and schooling. Fathers (and mothers) who have limited schooling as well
as low reading and writing abilities have difficulty participating in school-related
activities requiring high levels of literacy. However, these parents have
high hopes for their children and depend on programs to ensure that their
children will become competent learners.
Research suggests that even when fathers have limited schooling, their
involvement in children's schools and school lives is a powerful factor
in children's academic achievement. Nord, Brimhall, and West (1997) analyzed
data from the1996 National Household Education Survey (NHES) to compare
the involvement of nonresident and married fathers in school activities
of kindergarten to 12th-grade students. Married and nonresident fathers'
involvement in four types of school activities during the school year were
examinedattending a general school meeting, attending a class or school
event, attending a parent-teacher conference, and volunteering. Involvement
was defined as low if fathers did none or one of the four activities during
the school year, moderate if they did two activities, and high if they
did three or four activities. Fathers in two-parent families and nonresident
fathers who were moderately or highly involved in their children's school
had children who were significantly more likely than children with less
involved fathers to receive mostly high marks, enjoy school, and never
repeat a grade.
Research that examines the extent to which fathers are involved with
their children's schools (e.g., Nord, Brimhall, & West, 1997) has generally
shown that fathers are less involved than mothers in all types of school
activities. In particular, Nord, Brimhall, and West (1997) found that fathers
with less than a high school education were much less likely to be involved
in their children's schools than fathers with higher levels of education.
Although nonresident fathers were found to be substantially less involved
with their children's school than fathers residing with their children,
Nord, Brimhall, and West (1997) indicated that the involvement of nonresidential
fathers was in no way trivial. Grolnick and Slowiaczek (1994) examined
whether the motivational resources (e.g., self-regulation, perceived competence,
and control understanding) of 300 11- to 14-year-old children mediate between
three types of paternal involvement (e.g., behavior with regard to school,
the child's perception of the parent's affective and personal availability,
and exposure of the child to intellectual and cognitive activities) and
school performance (e.g., grades). They reported that for fathers two of
the involvement factors (behavior and intellectual/cultural activities)
both uniquely influenced perceived competence and indirectly influenced
school performance. In a recent study of Head Start children, Fagan and
Iglesias (1999) used a nonequivalent control group design to assess whether
participation in a Head Start based father involvement intervention influenced
child outcomes (e.g., early academic readiness in reading and mathematics,
social skills, and problem behaviors). The intervention involved adapting
traditional Head Start parent involvement activities (e.g., volunteering,
weekly Fathers' Day programs, father sensitivity training with staff, monthly
support groups for fathers, and father-child recreational activities).
Three levels of father participation (e.g., low, adequate, and high) were
measured. Fagan and Iglesias report a positive association between high-level
participation in a father involvement project and change in children's
mathematics readiness scores.
Early literacy development is a significant part of preparing children
to achieve academically. Children's early literacy is one of the areas
to show the most promise in engaging fathers. Although empirical studies
in this area are few, the applied activities suggested in Young Children
(e.g., Ortiz, Stile, & Brown, 1999) and other publications demonstrate
how fathers can be invited to engage in basic literacy activities. Literacy
researchers (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998; Whitehurst & Lonigan,
1998; Dickinson & Tabors, 2001; Wasik & Bond, 2001) have identified
a range of early literacy behaviors that are associated with children's
engagement with texts and success in reading:
- Oral language development, which includes book reading
- Phonemic awareness activities
- Exposure to the alphabet
In more expansive definitions of literacy, a parent's engagement is
not limited specifically to reading and writing but encompasses a range
of cognitive and social learning. As we know, young children acquire phonemic
awareness through nursery rhymes, jingles, poetry, and books that contain
words with rhymes and alliteration. Book reading, one of the most important
activities in providing a context for language development, is an essential
component of an effective preschool curriculum (Senechal et al., 1998).
It is intimately tied to language development, helps children to develop
phonemic awareness and mastery of the concepts of print, and can be used
to engage fathers with the program and at home.
How Fathers Can Be Involved
Children's development of early literacy begins at birth and relies
on a range of environmental stimuli. Fathers can ensure that their children
are exposed to the best environmental stimuli by participating at home
and in early childhood education settings, which are often children's first
significant experience outside of the family. In this way, fathers can
be supported as they foster optimal early childhood experiences through
which their children can develop cognitive abilities. For example, they
can tell stories, read and select books with their children, and learn
how to use appropriate visual and cognitive cues. Early childhood educators
can introduce fathers to approaches that provide opportunities for children
to scribble and write, learn new vocabulary, identify letters and important
words such as their names, and utilize relevant print within and outside
the household (e.g., the brand names on milk cartons and street signs).
They can also encourage fathers to talk with their children, a critical
but often under-rated parent-child activity.
This type of support could be integrated within the context of a program's
family involvement practices or presented as a workshop that is followed
up with activities involving both mothers and fathers. Parents might be
asked to maintain a portfolio of their children's effortsthat is, a folder
of the child's best workwhich both child and parent choose. This activity
requires that parents follow through on helping their children with literacy
tasks, acknowledge their role in their children's learning, and maintain
a relationship with the program. Fathers who do not live in the same household
with their children can also use this activity as a tangible way to connect
with them regularly around a shared activity of interest and demonstrate
that they value literacy.
Parents who have low levels of English language and literacy skills
can read aloud, recite rhymes, and sing songs to children in their home
language. In these cases, early childhood educators can clarify how children's
early literacy experiences in the home language support them as English-language
learners. A father can describe what he is doing while engaging in household
tasks and ask the child to predict what he might do next. Fathers might
also create games that require reading, writing, and problem solving.
Our ability to incorporate the cultural strengths and the distinctive
ways that families, specifically fathers, contribute to educational accomplishments
of their preschool children is severely constrained by major gaps and inadequacy
in our research literature. Before early childhood programs can tap these
fathers' or families' potential to enhance children's development, research
needs to define father and family involvement more precisely and to examine
the culturally rich dimensions of children's early care and education experiences.
For More Information
Clarke-Stewart, K. A. (1978). And daddy makes three: The father's impact
on mother and young child. Child Development, 49(2), 466-478. EJ 185 321.
Dickinson, D. K., & Tabors, P. O. (Eds.). (2001). Beginning literacy
with language: Young children learning at home and school. Baltimore, MD:
Brookes. ED 450 972.
Fagan, J., & Iglesias, A. (1999). Father involvement program effects
on fathers, father figures, and their Head Start children: A quasi-experimental
study. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 14(2), 243-269. EJ 603 899.
Fantuzzo, J., Tighe, E., & Childs, S. (2000). Family involvement
questionnaire: A multivariate assessment of family participation in early
childhood education. Journal of Educational Psychology, 92(2), 367-376.
EJ 619 382.
Gadsden, V. L., & Bowman, P. (1999). African American males and
the struggle toward responsible fatherhood. In V. Polite & J. Davis
(Eds.), A continuing challenge in times like these: African American males
in schools and society. New York: Teachers College Press.
Gadsden, V. L., Brooks, W., & Jackson, J. (1997, March). African
American fathers, poverty and learning: Issues in supporting children in
and out of school. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American
Educational Research Association, Chicago.
Grolnick, W. S., & Slowiaczek, M. L. (1994). Parents' involvement
in children's schooling: A multidimensional conceptualization and motivational
model. Child Development, 65(1), 237-252. EJ 478 223.
Nord, C. W., Brimhall, D., & West, U. (1997). Fathers' involvement
in their children's schools. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.
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Ortiz, R., Stile, S., & Brown, C. (1999). Early literacy activities
of fathers: Reading and writing with young children. Young Children, 54(5),
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Senechal, M., LeFevre, J., Thomas, E. M., & Daley, K. E. (1998).
Differential effects of home literacy experiences on the development of
oral and written language. Reading Research Quarterly, 33(1), 96-116. EJ
Snow, C. E., Burns, S., & Griffin, P. (Eds.). (1998). Preventing
reading difficulties in young children. Washington, DC: National Academy
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Wasik, B. A., & Bond, M. A. (2001). Beyond the pages of a book:
Interactive book reading and language development in preschool classrooms.
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Whitehurst, G. J., & Lonigan, C. J. (1998). Child development and
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Yarrow, L. J., MacTurk, R. H., Vietze, P. M., McCarthy, M. E., Klein,
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