Record: Dorit Aram, Inbal Cohen Meidan & Deborah Bergman Deitcher, “A Comparison Between Homeschooled and Formally Schooled Kindergartners: Children’s Early Literacy, Mothers’ Beliefs, and Writing Mediation.” Reading Psychology, 37, No. 7 (2016): 995-1024. [Abstract]

Summary: In this article, Aram, Meidan and Deitcher discuss the differences in maternal beliefs, the nature of mother’s support during a writing task, and children’s early literacy in a group of homeschooled children and formally-schooled children in Israel.

The sample of this study consists of sixty kindergarteners and their mothers. The homeschoolers were recruited primarily through internet groups, whereas the families from the formal schools heard about the study through advertisements given by kindergarten teachers. Half of the students were homeschooled and half attended formal education. The students were 30% male and 70% female since a previous study found that girls were more likely to be homeschooled in Israel. Finally, the homeschoolers and the formal schoolers were perfectly matched in terms of age, gender, and parent’s level of education.

Parental Beliefs: Parental beliefs influence the way in which they interact with their children. For example, one study showed that parents who focused on fostering enjoyment of reading added comments to the reading interaction to enhance interest, whereas parents whose primary goal was teaching gave more instructions. Aram, Meidan, and Deitcher hypothesize that parents who homeschool because of clashing pedagogical beliefs with the public school system will be more likely to develop their children’s literacy in a spontaneous, child-directed fashion.

The authors solicited the mothers’ beliefs with an 18-item questionnaire in which the mothers had to mark their agreement with various statements. Using the results from this questionnaire, the authors were able to construct three measures: attitude toward learning activities, mother-child closeness, and expectations for proper behavior.

While the authors found that the homeschooling mothers favored learning activities (i.e. providing math workbooks, direct instruction, teaching the alphabet), they favored them to a significantly lower degree than the non-homeschooling mothers. Mothers in both groups equally reported that being close with their child was important to them. Finally, the study found that the homeschooling mothers had lower expectations for proper behavior from their children than the formal schooling mothers did. This last category had to do with topics such as obeying authority, politeness, and self-regulation.

Early Literacy Skills: In traditional schools, Israeli children usually learn to read and write in the first grade. Kindergarten, on the other hand, is meant to provide children with basic early literacy skills. In this study, the authors measured three early literacy skills in order to compare the formally-schooled and homeschooled students: letter knowledge, phonological awareness, and early attempts at writing.

To measure letter knowledge, the children were asked to name 10 random letters. The homeschoolers performed significantly weaker on this test. They could only name 4 letters as opposed to an average of 6.5 letters from the students who were traditionally schooled.

For phoneme awareness, the children had to identify the initial phoneme of 17 one-syllable CVC words. The authors did not find any significant differences between the two groups on this test, which is interesting since formal schools in Israel use a phonological awareness curriculum.

Early writing was looked at through several different angles. First, children were asked to write their names. Then they had to write four pre-selected words. Their attempts at writing the words were graded on a scale that ranged from scribbles and pseudo letters to formal spelling. Homeschoolers wrote their names at a significantly lower level than the formally schooled children; however, the results were comparable for the other words. The difference in name-writing is probably due to the fact that Israeli children are expected to write their name from the time that they enter the education system.

Parental Writing Mediation: Writing is a complex task that usually requires parental guidance. The way that parents interact with their children while writing can have a big impact on their development. To measure writing mediation in the study, mothers were asked to help their child write a birthday invitation. The interactions were recorded and evaluated according to several criteria.

The first thing the researchers looked at was grapho-phonemic mediation. This reflects the degree to which the mother guided the child through the process of segmenting a word into its sounds and retrieving the required letter for each sound when attempting to spell an orally presented word. The scale went from 0 (no support provided by the mother) to 7 (the mother encouraged the child to go through the process independently while supporting when help was needed). The mean score was 2.62 for homeschooling mothers and 3.88 for formally-schooling mothers. This means that homeschooling mothers tended to assist by saying the word without giving the child the opportunity to make the connections between sounds and letters, or by dictating letters; whereas the formally-schooling mothers tended to isolate the sounds for the child and then say the letter name. It is interesting to note that the standard deviation of the homeschooling group was much larger, reflecting a more diverse collection of views.

Next they rated the samples for printing mediation. This is the level of support and encouragement given to the child in order to independently produce the graphic form of the letter. Once again, this characteristic was graded on 7-point scale with 0 being no intervention, 1 being that the mother wrote for the child, and 7 being that the mother watched and encouraged the child while letting him/her do it independently. Like grapho-phonemic mediation, printing mediation was significantly lower among the homeschooling group. While the formal-schooling mothers gave their children greater independence and provided more encouragement to write the words on their own, the mothers in the homeschooling group tended to provide an example for the children to copy.

Finally, the recordings were tallied for eight categories of general writing mediation such as positive reinforcement, demand for precision (or lack of demand for precision when a child wrote something incorrectly), entries into the child’s workspace, organizing the activity, etc. The analysis found that mothers in the traditionally-schooling group helped their children get organized more frequently, had significantly higher demands for precision, and tended to enter their child’s workspace significantly more often than the homeschooling mothers.

Predicting Early Writing: Using all of the data they collected, the authors were able to isolate the factor of homeschooling to see what impact it had on children’s early writing. While homeschooling negatively affected the children’s early ability, it only constituted 7% of the difference between the two groups. The ways in which parents interacted with their children while writing were much more significant. For example, children in both groups were more accurate in their writing when their parent encouraged them to retrieve a phonological segment in the word and connect it to a letter name.

Appraisal: First, it must be said that this is a very detailed and well-constructed study. There aren’t many studies (besides this excellent study by Martin-Chang, Gould, and Meuse) that manage to quantitatively compare the academic outcomes of homeschooled and non-homeschooled children that are comparable in terms of age, gender, and parental education level. Furthermore, this is the first study (to my knowledge) that compares the academic outcomes of such young children.

However, the fact that the study works with kindergarteners means that the conclusions which can be drawn from this article are fairly slim. While homeschool opponents might pull from several findings in this study (such as the homeschoolers’ weaker early literacy scores) to show that homeschooling does not prepare students academically as well as the formal school system, it is critical to remember that kindergarten does not predict a person’s entire future. Furthermore, it must be kept in mind that homeschooling families often have different educational philosophies from the one propagated by the traditional school system. For example, they might be opposed to making their kids read at such a young age, or they might not believe in placing such an explicit emphasis on phonics. Essentially, the measures being assessed in this excellent study are not as much a priority in some homeschooling families’ pedagogies, and the wider spread in homeschooler results here reflects that.

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