The importance of the home learning environment

In this strange time when young children have never spent more of their waking hours at home, the home learning environment has never been more important. But what is it, and what should it look like?

The term “home learning environment” (HLE) might conjure up an image of a child sitting at a table or desk, pen in hand, with a whiteboard on their bedroom wall. But in fact, the HLE has much more to do with how the adults in the environment are behaving than how the environment physically appears. It’s been described as “the physical characteristics of the home, but also the quality of the implicit and explicit learning support [children] receive from [their] caregivers” (DfE, 2018 and National Literacy Trust, p.6). What that means is that a child’s HLE is comprised not only of what resources are in the home but also how their adults support their learning and development. One famous longitudinal study that explored the HLE was the Effective Pre-School, Primary and Secondary Education (EPPSE) project, which looked at the impact of preschool education on children’s intellectual and social/behavioural development throughout primary and secondary school. One of their earlier findings was “what parents do is more important than who parents are” (Sylva et al., 2004, p.1), meaning that the HLE has more of an impact on the child’s intellectual and social development than their parents’ education, occupation or income.

There are several key activities that are said to contribute to an effective home learning environment, which include:

  • Reading, sharing books and going to the library
  • Going out on visits
  • Playing with print (letters and numbers)
  • Singing songs and nursery rhymes
  • Drawing and painting (making meaningful marks) and playing with friends

(The National Literacy Trust, National Children’s Bureau (NCB), Peeple and the Foundation Years Trust (FYT), 2018, p.2).

We know that not all these activities are possible at the moment, as libraries are shut and visits to friends prohibited. And we know that there may be barriers to parents being able to engage in these activities; the DfE and National Literacy Trust (2018) acknowledge that there may be barriers in parents’ capabilities (like low literacy skills), opportunities (due to financial and time restrictions) and motivation (such as a dislike of reading and ‘educational’ activities) which inhibit a parent’s ability to develop the HLE. But the need for parents to receive support to overcome these barriers is clear; the National Literacy Trust report that “the most disadvantaged children are 19 months behind their more well-off peers in language and communication development by the time they start primary school”. Ensuring children have an effective HLE is one strategy that can be used to minimise this difference.

To support the development of effective HLEs, in 2018 the National Literacy Trust launched an initiative called Small Talk, which aims to help parents provide language-rich home environments for their children. The Small Talk website provides guidance and resources for parents with children from birth to five on conversation prompts, games and tips when reading. It utilises the “Chat, Play, Read” framework as a behaviour change model based on three areas:

  • Chat: encourage talking but crucially, reciprocal communication;
  • Play: language thrives when children interact and explore in a playful and creative manner;
  • Read: sharing books, parents and children talking together

(DfE and National Literacy Trust, 2018, p.17).

So, if you are a parent, perhaps think about what your HLE looks like. We’d recommend the Small Talk website for ideas for things to be doing with your under 5s. If you are an early years practitioner, have a think about what you could be doing to support parents to overcome the barriers they may face in developing their child’s HLE. The DfE and National Literacy Trust’s (2008) report provides some good ideas for activities that may help. And whoever you are, we’d be interested in what you are doing to support children’s HLE.

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