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How Do Socio-economic Factors Affect Early Literacy?

Updated on November 28, 2009


Literacy is a fundamental tool that students must have in order to further their academic success. Literacy can be seen as being crucial to a student’s academic achievement throughout their school years. Early problems in literacy may have a devastating effect on their later academic motivation and achievement.

According to Ruby Payne in her book , A Framework for Understanding Poverty, low achievement can be closely correlated with low socioeconomic status. Poverty can be related to academic achievement in the United States. Students who come from impoverished families are more likely to have problems in school than students who come from middle-class or upper-class families. Unfortunately, the United States has very high rates of childhood poverty. Furthermore, it is very difficult for the impoverished families to escape poverty once they are in it.

The purpose of this article is to study the impact of socio-economic (SES)status on educational achievement and early literacy. It will also look at the success of compensatory programs, such as Head Start , Title 1 and Early Interventions, that have been developed in order to help at-risk students from low-income families and communities overcome learning problems associated with their socio-economic factors.

According to the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) children of low-income families began school far below their more advantaged peers. (Klein Knitzer, 2007). Their studies point out the following facts:

  • Before entering kindergarten, the average cognitive scores of preschool-age children in the highest socioeconomic group are 60 percent above the average scores of children in the lowest socioeconomic group.
  • At age 4 years, children who live below the poverty line are 18 months below what is normal for their age group; by age 10 that gap is still present. For children living in the poorest families, the gap is even larger
  • By the time children from middle-income families with well-educated parents are in third grade, they know about 12,000 words. Third grade children from low-income families with undereducated parents who don’t talk to them very much have vocabularies of around 4,000 words, one-third as many words as their middle-income peers.

Early education studies have demonstrated that one of the greatest factors that can predict a child’s success are their early literacy skills. This “readiness to read” must be nurtured during a child’s early years. This is long before they ever enter preschool or kindergarten. It is important that children begin their formal education as developmentally ready as possible. These are the fundamental skills that provide an important foundation for all education skills--reading, writing, and all other subject areas.

It has been well documented that there is an association between family poverty and children’s health, achievement and behavior . Family income appears to be more strongly related to children’s ability and achievement than to their long term emotional outcomes. However, the association between income and a child’s educational outcomes is much more complex than a simple of association between these factors.

Health can be viewed as an outcome in itself. However, it is also a means by which poverty can influence other childhood outcomes such as cognitive ability and school achievement. Furthermore, a child’s home environment also has a substantial effect on these to factors as well. Opportunities for learning in the home must include the important mother-child interactions as well as the physical condition of the home. Poverty can be linked to a lower quality of parent and child interaction. Parental practices may also include the use of harsh punishments. All of these factors play important roles in the learning outcomes for children living in poverty.

Research shows that the critical period for children to develop foundational capabilities on which all subsequent development builds is between the ages of birth to 5 years old. This is the time when the most dramatic progress in linguistic and cognitive gains are made. Emotional, social, regulatory and moral dimensions are also intertwined with this early developmental period. Each of these critical areas will require focused attention in order to develop appropriately.

This is the very period of development when noticeable disparities in what children know and are able to do become evident before they ever enter kindergarten. These differences are strongly associated with social and economic circumstances that these children find themselves. These disparities are also predictors of their subsequent academic and cognitive performance. It has been suggested that, even before entering kindergarten, the difference between high-status and low-status is estimated to be over 60%. (Lee & Burkam, 2002) . There are large differences especially between children’s receptive and expressive language skills. Even more serious than their skill deficiencies, are the knowledge deficiencies that are a reflection of the limited access to the informal information that come from the daily interactions between parent and child. There has been limited study on the differences among children in content knowledge and its relationship to achievement. However, it has been suggested that skill development without meaningful content has only limited usefulness or staying power for these socially disadvantaged students. (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997; Neuman, Copple, & Bredekamp, 2000).

The idea behind compensatory education is to, in a sense, "compensate" for these disadvantages by expanding and improving the educational programs offered to children living in poverty. Early intervention programs which focus on young preschool and primary school children, attempt to provide them with the skills they will need in they will need in school that they may not acquire at home or in their regular school. The federally funded Title 1 program provides schools money so that they may provide students from low-income families, who are having school-related problems, with additional services.

For low-income preschoolers, increasing early literacy and math skills is vital to closing the achievement gap between them and their more advantaged peers. New research shows that an intentional curriculum and professional development and supports for teachers are important components of effective preschool classrooms and programs.

A special focus on these strategies is important because many low-income children in early learning settings fall behind early and remain very much behind their peers in reading and math. The various studies regarding Head Start have produced somewhat contradictory and controversial results about the effect that the program has had on children from economically disadvantaged homes.( Zigler, E. & Styfco, S.J. (1994). Their study analyzed this program in terms of both long and short term effects on children attending the Head Start Program. Their research seemed to confirm some of the controversial issues about Head Start. In particular, it appears that the Head Start program has only proven to be beneficial to children’s short-term educational development. (Lee, V.E., Brooks-Gunn, J., Schnur, E. et al. (1988).) Long term effects seem to indicate that students lose any increased cognitive ability they may have gained relatively shortly after leaving the Head Start Program.

Ron Haskins compiled various studies that compared the differences betweennon-compensatory preschool programs and compensatory programs like Head Start.(Haskins, Ron, 1989). The result of these studies showed that by the end of the year both programs produced significant gains in intellectual performance and socio-emotional development. However, both programs saw a decline within a few years after the students left the program. When looking at the variables of school performance, there was strong evidence of positive effects on the non-compensatory preschool program and only modest evidence any long term effects from the Head Start Program. Students who have attended the Head Start Preschool program, seem to lag behind their peers in the later grades. The question that still requires additional study is the how much independent factors such as family income and parent education has attributed to these differences.

It appears to be a difficult task for such a compensatory preschool program to have a long term effect on early literacy and later school achievement. Killian and Kagen’s research also points out that the Title 1 Reading Program hasnot had the positive effects on reading achievement as first projected. Their study followed a group of students from second through sixth grade. The results showed that, although Title I intervention had a positive effect on students tested in the third grade, they could not maintain these gains after leaving the program. The Title I program had resulted in only minimal gains for struggling students. Many of the students, particularly those with low ability, required continued interventions and supports in order not to fall behind their peers.

In his research, Slavin (2006) indicated that there are some compensatory programs which are designed to help students from low income families to overcome learning problems which can be associated with their social economic status that have been successful. As far as the effects of Title 1 programs in general, has shown only inconsistent success rates. He points to the success of the early intervention, prevention and some school reform programs that have proved to be beneficial to these high risk students.

The Reading Recovery program provides struggling first graders withaccess to individualize literacy tutoring with trained teachers. The program can helpthose students that are at most risk reach their appropriate level of reading performance. Slavin(2006) indicates that its positive effects are long term and the program is used in more than 9,000 elementary schools around the country.

Success for All is an accomplished CSR program that provides research-based reading programs to preschools, elementary, and middle schools (Slavin, 2006). However, its main focus main focus is on prevention and early intervention children in elementary school. Students in this program do read substantially better than their peers throughout the elementary grades. They are also less likely to needspecial education services or to fail a grade.

Summer school seem to close the achievement gap which appears between the lower and middle class students during the summer months. Socio-economically disadvantaged students are more likely not to make any achievement gains during the Summer months. In contrast, middle class students tend to make gains during this same period. Furthermore, the lower class students are more likely to forget previously learned material. Ultimately, they fall even further behind their peers. Summer school may provide a solution to this discrepancy by engaging at-risk students in academically-related activities they would have otherwise not participated in. Because summer school has been found to increase children’s knowledge and skills, it may lead to achievement gains in at-risk students, in addition to helping them maintain previously learned material (Harris, Kelly, Valentine, Muhlenbruck, 2000).

In summary, the detrimental effects of poverty on children's academic outcomes and general well being are well documented. The question remains about which program, or programs, can best address this socio-economic disadvantage and provide students with the skills necessary to be successful learners. Although state governments have primary responsibility for elementary and secondary education in the United States, The federal government ‘s concern for the education of poor children, continues to remain compelling enough to support the continued funding and commitment to compensatory education policies from the mid-1960s to the early twenty-first century.

Obviously, research confirms that The Title I and Head Start compensatory education programs have come a long way, but neither has reached its full potential in breaking the connections between poverty and early literacy success. Neither of these program may ever be the “great equalizer” that PresidentJohnson had in mind . In order to compensate for poor schools, poor health care, poverty and the various other conditions that have been shown to have adverse effects on students’ development is going to take more of a commitment that these two federally funded programs. In the history of both programs, neither has had sufficient funding to provide services to all eligible children. To the millions of children, however, that Title I and Head Start have served, it has made important differences in their lives, their families' lives, and in their schools.

The Comprehensive School Reform Program (CSR) encourages schools to focus on all aspects of their school's operations when making improvements rather on just isolated programs that have not proven to be effective in improving student performance. This program encourages the school to improve themselves by implementing comprehensive school improvement models that provide proven methods and strategies for teaching, learning, and school management. It has been found to significantly improve the academic achievement of students or demonstrates strong evidence that it will improve the academic achievement of all students.

Ultimately, we continue to ask the question: “What compensatory programs or strategies can actually help these low socio-economic students catch up to their peers?” There is much research showing that effects of poverty on early literacy are not irreversible. With comprehensive, ongoing early interventions , it is possible to change the educational outcomes for low-income children. Using an intentional curriculum, as well as providing teachers with professional development and supports can help close the achievement gap.

An Intentional Curriculum can be defined as being:

content driven, research-based, emphasizes active engagement with children, includes attention to social and regulatory skills, and is responsive to cultural diversity and children just learning English.

An intentional curriculum is directive without using drill and kill strategies; it is fun for young children and promotes positive peer and teacher interactions. It must also be developmentally appropriate. ( Klein and Knitzer, 2007).

Research finds that children make even more academic gains when they have teachers who encourage communication, reasoning and an enthusiasm for learning. It is also important to align early learning curricula and teaching strategies with K-3 standards.

Key skills must be identified and student progress must be monitored in order to identifythe children who need this targeted intervention to promote early literacy. The assessments must provide reliable and valid measurements of these skills. Findings further suggest that instruction focused on these skills may provide valuable literacy preparation, particularly for children at risk for developing reading. Because these at-risk children are in critical need of effective instruction in the early years in order to develop effective reading and writing skills, curriculum must include the following key elements for effective literacy instruction.

  • A book-rich literate environment;
  • Teacher read-alouds;
  • Students reading aloud to others;
  • Shared reading;
  • Phonological awareness instruction;
  • Phonics instruction;
  • Reading comprehension strategy instruction;
  • Writing strategy instruction;
  • Variety of reading and writing activities; and
  • Time for reading and writing.

As this article has shown, early intervention is important for students who are struggling with reading and writing. This is especially true of children living in poverty. With well designed curriculum and scientifically based early interventions, thesestudents have an opportunity to overcome their low socio-economic backgrounds and become successful students, while at the same time breaking the cycle of poverty. However, it will take a sustained effort of the government, school districts and dedicated teachers, in order to insure early literacy success for all students.


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Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Duncan, G.J., and Brooks-Gunn, J., eds. Consequences of growing up poor. New York:Russell Sage Foundation, 1997.

Harris, C., Kelly, C., Valentine, J. C. (2000). Making the most of summer school: A Meta-analytic and narrative review. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child development, 65, v-118.

Haskins, Ron. (1989). The Efficacy of Early Childhood Education. American Psychological Journal, 44(2), 274-282.

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Ritchie, S. (2006). National Center for Early Development and Learning (NCEDL).

Chapel Hill, NC: NCEDL, FPG Child Development Institute.

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Lee, V. E. & Burkam, D. T. (2002). Inequality at the starting gate: Social background differences in achievement as children begin school. Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute.

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Parlakian, Rebecca. 2003. Before the ABCs: Promoting School Readiness in Infants and Toddlers.

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