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When Parents Get Involved, Early Literacy Grows

Maureen Taylor is Sprig’s Strategic Advisor of Learning and Governance. After earning a B.Ed and M.Ed from the University of Saskatchewan, Maureen has spent 30 years in early years education working as an educator, administrator, superintendent, and consultant.


How many new parents have been told, by well-intentioned family or friends, that they need to do activities with their young children that promote learning? After all, we’ve all heard that a child’s education begins at birth and ultimately goes on forever.  

I know it is not always easy to see the impact of our everyday interactions with our children. As a parent and grandparent, I can attest to that. However, as an educator who has read the research and has years of practical experience, I can confidently say that the early years really are pivotal in a child’s educational development. It is my belief that parental involvement is a cornerstone to a child’s education.


Learning at Home is Important

Over five decades of research, and time invested from many institutions across the globe, suggests that students perform better in all aspects of life when their parents are involved in their learning path from an early age. Parents are a child’s first teachers and are by far the most influential people in their life.

“Children spend only 17 percent of their time in school and 83 percent of their time with parents. This out-of-school time is a huge opportunity to have parents collaborate to enhance the educational outcomes for their children.”


Debbie Pushor, University of Saskatchewan Curriculum Studies Professor

Talking to your children and reading to them before bed may sound like little things, but as it turns out, these little things aren’t so little after all. Everyday activities like questioning, playing, singing and rhyming have an incredible impact on your child’s learning. And, there is sound pedagogical research to back that up. In fact, Snow, Burns & Griffin (1998) suggest that while letter-sound correspondence learned at school is important, the motivation, comprehension, and strong oral language skills children develop through conversation and reading with their parents is even more consequential for strong literacy in the primary years and beyond.

“Research has proven that, early in life, reading to your child every day has a direct positive causal impact on their reading and cognitive skills later in life.”


Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, Victoria, Australia

Having these positive literacy experiences, especially at home, encourages early learners to become strong and confident readers by the time they hit third grade, which is a key indicator for the prediction of high school graduation.


What Parents Can Do to Support Learning at Home

How parents are involved in developing their children’s oral language and reading skills matters. Research indicates that it is home-based activities that are most closely linked to students’ academic success in school. In Caspe and Lopez’s Seven Research-Based Ways That Families Promote Early Literacy (2017), they suggest the following activities as particularly effective in helping early learners develop literacy skills:

  • Read with your child and talk about stories. This supports vocabulary, knowledge, oral language, print awareness, and reading comprehension.
  • Share a book enthusiastically and with engagement. This fosters a love of reading and develops a child’s motivation and passion for reading.
  • Use rich vocabulary to converse with your child. This increases vocabulary and understanding of language.
  • Use your home language. Whether you speak French, Spanish, or Arabic, this encourages the development of language and literacy and promotes a healthier cultural identity.
  • Ask open ended ‘why’ questions. This develops knowledge of the meaning of words and their relationships.  
  • Visit a library. This not only promotes language and literacy development, but it also may provide new learning opportunities.  
  • Set high expectations for your child’s potential. This encourages curiosity to try new activities and builds resilience in persisting at tasks.

While these are all intentional activities, it is good to be reminded that learning is all around us.  By conversing with your child as you bake, count money, and set the table, you are developing math skills. By pointing out familiar signs in your surroundings, you are developing print awareness. By playing ‘I Spy’ and ‘Simon Says’, you are developing memory and attention. And lastly, by reflecting on your day, you are developing vocabulary and language.

Parent engagement encourages meaningful learning in a joyful way. By sharing and talking about different experiences in different environments, we are modeling and partnering in our children’s learning, and exchanging boring experiences for bonding experiences. Parent engagement with their children’s learning matters!



Sprig Home is a curriculum-aligned, at-home version of Sprig’s classroom-based oral language learning program for early learners that shows parents how to enrich the simple things they do, each and every day, to help foster their child’s learning. It is available at no cost for the duration of school closures.

With the launch of Sprig Home, parents have free access to high-quality learning resources for children aged three to six. Since Sprig Home is a derivative of Sprig Language, Sprig’s oral language learning program, parents can ensure that the activities they do at home with their kids not only support learning, but meet school curricular outcomes as well.


Start learning at home today! Sprig Home is free for parents during school closures.

Defining Parent Engagement in 2019

Elise Twyford

Elise Twyford


Elise Twyford is an early-years educator and lifelong learner. She is currently running the Sprig Learning Oral Language Learning Program in her classroom in Toronto, Ontario.

What does parent engagement look like in 2019?

Parents spend countless hours caring for their child — they are the experts on the little person that you meet in your classroom. They send their hopes and dreams into school with their child, and every parent wants to see their child succeed. As educators, we get the privilege to spend a few hours a day helping their little learners build the skills they need along their path toward academic success.

But while we know that relational trust between schools and parents is linked to higher levels of student achievement, how much time are we as educators dedicating to actively nurturing our relationships with parents and caregivers? How can we create a welcoming and responsive classroom culture, one where engagement is initiated and led by parents, caregivers and community members? And what does parent engagement look like in the culturally responsive classroom, particularly in communities where trust in the education system is lacking, oftentimes because of historical trauma?

What does it even mean to engage parents in early learning?

We tend to evaluate parent engagement by the number of parents who attend parent-teacher interviews, or how regularly we communicate directly with the home. These numbers, although important, are often more representative of a parents’ busy schedule than their meaningful engagement with their child’s education.

Because we lack the framework and tools we need to discuss and describe parental engagement, we as teachers often find ourselves unable to analyze and assess the true fruits of our efforts. We know that we are doing “something” to get parents engaged in our classrooms—but is it enough?

Ken Leithwood argues that we need to shift away from the current model of trying to get parents into the school, and towards a model where parents and caregivers can support learning in the home. After all, this is where half of the learning that we are responsible for as educators happens.

The Ladder of Participation

Roger Hart (1992) developed the Ladder of Youth Participation to describe levels of youth engagement. At the bottom of the ladder, you can see an engagement model that is providing information. At the top of the ladder, you see a model that has ideas initiated by youth and both adults and youth sharing in the decision making.

Could this same framework be used to think about how teachers engage parents in classrooms?


Typically, when we think of parent engagement, we think of the communication that happens through emails and calls to the home. We think of parent representatives on school committees, parent volunteers in school-wide activities, and parent-teacher night. The common thread here is that engagement happens on the school’s terms rather than the parent’s. From Hart’s ladder, this would look like the bottom 1-5 rungs (if we were being generous).

But what if we imagined a more engaging approach, one that supports parents to direct, define and lead the engagement?

This is especially true when looking at the culturally responsive classroom of 2019. For example, in speaking to culturally restorative practices at the First Nations School of Toronto (Parent Discussion Night, January 23, 2018), Estelle Simard described engaging Elders, parents, and community members in how culture should be taught in school, and the importance of creating meaningful engagement that enabled families to both initiate and define how they engage with their child’s school.

Estelle provided an example of a community where the Elders wanted regalia making, the creation of traditional and sometimes sacred clothing and accessories, to be a component of the school’s curriculum. The school then aligned curriculum and opened the door for the community to share their knowledge on the subject, creating a community of sharing and mutual respect.

Building Bridges between the Home and the School

We work hard to build relationships with our students. In order to increase parent engagement, we need to further that hard work by building relationships with parents, caregivers, and the community. So how can we honour this in our own classrooms and begin building bridges between home and school? 

  • – Attend community events – and don’t be shy about engaging with parents. Even a small wave or nod will start you on the path to building trust and a positive relationship with parents.
  • Create a classroom culture that encourages constant dialogue between yourself and your students’ caregivers, and work together to determine how to best support their child. Remember, the dialogue must be reciprocal. At the end of the day, parents are the true experts when it comes to their child.
  • – Most importantly — listen.

One of the benefits of working with the Sprig Learning Platform has been that it provides me with the opportunity to connect my classroom to every one of my students’ home lives, and to provide parents and caregivers with the tools they need to reinforce learning in their own homes.

We started out with a classroom birthday party for a haptic-enabled moose puppet named Antle, who is the star of Sprig’s Learning and MK Education’s Oral Language Learning Program. We invited parents, grandparents, and caregivers into our classroom, and encouraged them to learn more about the literacy learning that happens every day at school.
We interviewed each caregiver on the iOS-based caregiver survey, and parents and caregivers gave us more information about the literacy learning that happens at home and in the community. We all had such a great time at the party, and the small interactions that took place really built trust and strengthened our relationships with the families. Even better, we established a two-way dialogue between the home and school, both in-person and through the Sprig Learning online platform. Our students’ parents can now see activities that we recommend to further learning in the home, and trust that we are both working together to lead their little learner down a path to success.

Parent-Teacher Partnerships Lead to Success

The lasting effect of parents and teachers working together is clear when we see these students grow into healthy, confident, and curious lifelong learners. It’s important to find the approaches and strategies that work best for your classroom, but always remember to listen, be open-minded, and to have fun.


This guest post on the Sprig Learning Blog was contributed by  Elise Twyford, a teacher and lifelong learner based out of Toronto, Ontario. You can follow Elise here.

For more information about a holistic approach to assessment or holistic education, book a demo today or send us an email at letstalk@spriglearning.com.

Freethinking Finger-Painters: Media Literacy for Early Learners

The truth is hard to come by, isn’t it? Even for adults, the line between truth and falsehood is often blurry. Social media, news sites, online publications – the access to information is limitless but so too is our exposure to misinformation. For every reputable news source, there is a fabulist publication fishing for clicks, shares and ad revenue.

In the age of information, it’s important to teach children to remain skeptical with an infinite wealth of knowledge always within arm’s reach. With blatant deceit being spewed from traditionally truthful sources and positions of authority, media literacy should be taught at a young age as most (if not all) early learners accept adult opinion as law.

Media Literacy for Early Learners 

As oral literacy is the framework for a child’s comprehension and understanding, it also lays the foundation for effective media literacy which appears to be a lost skillset. A Stanford study has shown that students at nearly all grade levels are unable to determine ‘fake news’ from real news. The study showed that while students absorbs media constantly, they often lack the critical thinking skills.

Early learners should focus on three areas of media literacy: identifying the storyteller, understanding stories and learning language.

A child who actively and passively participates during story time is more likely to excel in linguistic and print-related processes equating to better written and oral comprehension and awareness. To develop media literacy, early learners should be asked, “Who is telling this story?”. At this stage, they will likely answer with the most immediate and physical option – the individual reading the story. However, as the child ages, their answers will change to maybe a character in the book or even the author. The important part is to get them started early and build identifying the storyteller as a habit.

When it comes to understanding stories, early learners are often encouraged to analyze, retell, or reflect on what is being read. Asking them questions or to retell the story improves literacy skills, provides insight into their level of comprehension and encourages the habit of thinking and talking about media – an important aspect of media literacy. Keep in mind that the goal isn’t to replace story time with a pop quiz, it’s to foster an opportunity for early learners to discuss what they see and hear.

Learning language is not nearly as cut and dry as TV, games, books and film all affect the way early learners grasp language. Since language is developed through different media consumption, it’s important to recognize sight, sound and written word as opportunities to teach media literacy.

Just like letters and words influence perspective in print media, close-ups and zooms do so in image-based media. Having early learners occasionally identify what kind of shot they’re viewing on TV or in film will help them understand how shot selection affects perspective.

Surprisingly, it’s sound that is the easiest for early learners to understand. Occasionally asking how a song or sound effect makes them feel will foster understanding of how sounds influence how we feel and act. Ultimately, this aids in recognizing emotion and its influence in all media.

“4 out of 5 toddlers are watching movies, television shows, or online videos, and 85 percent of moms allow their preschooler to play with their phone.”

With students (including early learners) having access to more media than ever before, some suggest it’s beneficial to teach them to read like fact-checkers. Mike Caulfield, director of blended and networked learning at Washington State University suggests students read laterally – moving from the original text, opening up a series of tabs to determine the credibility of the text’s author and the sources they cite.

Caulfield also suggests students to recognize emotion in writing. He says, “When you feel strong emotion – happiness, anger, pride, vindication – and that emotion pushes you to share a ‘fact’ with others, STOP.” That being said, reading like a fact-checker is better suited for an older academic audience as early learners have yet to develop proper literacy skills and emotional intelligence.

Media Literacy is Early Literacy

If the onslaught of ‘fake news’ has taught us anything, it’s that media consumption has changed. Staying informed requires a level of healthy skepticism in order to raise articulate, well-read youth for the betterment of society.

Some might argue teaching media literacy too early encourages distrust in the media we consume. However, media literacy is simply part of early literacy. A 2011 report found that poor ‘comprehenders’ in the fifth grade – those with poor reading comprehension despite adequate word-reading skills – showed weak language skills as early as 15 months of age (Justice, Mashburn, & Petscher, in press). The purpose of teaching media literacy is to grant students the ability to recognize misinformation and formulate well-founded opinions and the truth is, these are shared goals of early literacy.

In the age of information, media literacy is part of literacy itself. Students are struggling to make sense of the vast amount of information they have at their fingertips. The media landscape has become a worldwide shouting match and it’s up to the individual to discern which voice is telling the truth. Starting in early childhood education helps implant the notion that not everything you read on the Internet is fact.

For more information about a holistic approach to assessment or holistic education, send us an email at letstalk@spriglearning.com.

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Digital Literacy is Important, Early Literacy is Important-er

Coding, digital literacy, tech etiquette – these competencies are being squeezed into curriculums faster than you can say ‘growth mindset’. There is a justified reasoning behind this digital push, but let’s not forget the importance of early literacy.

Without developing digital skills, students will have trouble entering the workforce. Without developing early literacy, students will have trouble mastering digital skills. Herein lies the problem: failure to promote early literacy ripples through student learning as reading, writing and speaking are the foundation for success.

Why are oral language and early literacy skills so important?

Oral language and literacy are key components of early student learning and the greatest initial predictors of a child’s success in school. It is the bedrock on which literacy can build. Babies begin to acquire language within months of being born and by age five, they can master basic sound system structures and grammar. Children who do not develop the necessary language, reading and writing skills in their early years of schooling are at risk of developing further challenges in other areas of learning.

“Human beings are born to speak; they have an innate gift for figuring out the rules of the language used in their environment.

In addition, early language skills are predictive of later reading comprehension development. A 2011 report found that poor ‘comprehenders’ in the fifth grade – those with poor reading comprehension despite adequate word-reading skills – showed weak language skills as early as 15 months of age (Justice, Mashburn, &Petscher, in press). Oral Language is a skill practiced all the time with teachers, educators, parents, peers and members of the community and if supported properly, encourages reading and writing.

Regardless of a student’s language, nationality, culture or socioeconomic status, oral language development is of fundamental importance during a child’s formative years. That being said, cultural relevance can make a huge difference in strengthening student learning. Culturally enabling content means the student can see themselves in what they are learning. With relatable content, connections are made easier and learning happens fluidly.

What should your early literacy program look like?

As mentioned earlier, digital literacy is nothing to be discounted – it is a necessary competency that should be included in the early literacy discussion. The ideal early literacy program leverages digital tools to engage students with interactive, fun and personalized activities. If the content is culturally enabling that’s even more effective, but make sure there is a heavy focus on oral language. Children’s oral language skills are the foundation of reading and language comprehension.

Since few children entering kindergarten can read words, early literacy programs should look at oral language skills that develop word recognition and/or decoding ability. Knowledge of the alphabet and phonological awareness are strong predictors of decoding and comprehension and teaching both in combination shows a positive impact on improving the latter skills.

“As students explore language in classroom experiences, they begin to understand how to use their knowledge about language to communicate effectively in different ways, for a variety of purposes, including how to read and write.

Early learners should be exposed to oral language activities holistically, in all aspects of life. This is why it is important your early literacy program engages caregivers too. Students that have caregivers actively engaged in their learning have shown an average of .5 – .6 of a standard deviation for overall educational outcomes, grades and academic achievement.

Additionally, assessments of these early literacy skills are important to identify children who are likely to need more intensive instruction to achieve success with literacy. By identifying and working with students across all literacy levels early, educators can be proactive in ensuring that students meet or exceed academic expectations.

If children’s oral language skills are assessed early and often, educators and caregivers alike are painted a clearer picture of student learning. The key is getting all of a child’s stakeholders involved in early learning. When a child is educated holistically, magic happens.

For more information about Sprig’s Learning’s Oral Language Program, send us an email at

Justice, L.M., Mashburn, A., & Petscher, Y. (in press). “Very early language skills
of fifth-grade poor comprehenders.” Journal of Research in Reading.
Trehearne, Miriam P., “Kindergarten Teacher’s Resource Book.” Nelson Thompson Learning,
Chapters 3 pgs 183-232, 2000

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Why Traditional Early Years Assessment is Failing

Among personalized learning and caregiver engagement, student assessment is one of the most important aspects of early learning. Educators who consistently use formative assessment strategies are shown to double the speed of learning for students in their classroom. While the link between assessment and early years learning is clear, a gap remains with the data that is being collected.

Traditional assessments only capture two perspectives: the teacher and the student. This leaves learning that happens outside of the classroom unidentified. There are more stakeholders in student learning outside of school, so how do we bridge the gap from inside the classroom to the outside world?

The answer is holistic education. Holistic education integrates multiple learning components in its thinking, focusing on the whole learner instead of the sum of its parts. It pays significant attention to experiential learning and aims to help students reach their maximum potential. Assessment needs to encourage communities and caregivers to take part in a child’s learning so students can demonstrate their full potential. This not only helps students but supports educators by increasing caregiver and community engagement.

What does holistic education mean for future learning?

A child’s early life experiences are proven to have a lasting impact on their development and future learning success. For this reason, early years assessment data needs to be collected accurately and holistically.

More than 85% of a child’s brain growth development
occurs before the age of 5.

With holistic assessment, every stakeholder in a child’s learning benefits. Caregivers are empowered to help their child learn effectively and teachers receive support from caregivers and the community while gaining access to better data to inform instruction.

With better data, true personalized learning can finally be achieved – an ambitious objective looking to be met by educations systems globally. With personalized learning still a frontier, a holistic approach in assessment can accelerate its development. In Canada, some provinces still use standardized assessments that date back twenty years, but the good news is they recognize the need for change.

In order for personalized learning to be effective, accurate and comprehensive information is required to define the needs of the learner. A holistic approach to assessment enables this in two ways.

First, by broadening its scope to identify learning in the home, community, land (and school), holistic assessment provides new information for teachers. New information about each learner that may have never been asked or identified. Second, a holistic assessment provides more accurate information through its more natural and formative approaches. Through the provision of culturally enabling tools and implementation, holistic assessments are able to break down direct and indirect biases during the assessment, which creates a more comfortable and supportive environment for students to demonstrate their skills and abilities.

Applying a holistic approach to assessment also fosters a mindset of collaboration. Students are taught to stop, collaborate and listen to each other’s thoughts for constructive discussion. They’re taught this behaviour because it will be expected of them in the workplace. Teaching in collaboration with caregivers and the community sets a precedent for students and produces better education at the same time.

What research supports holistic education?

The holistic approach is rooted in Canadian First Nations teachings and the lifelong learning model – both products of research from the Canadian Council on Learning. Indigenous people in Canada have long understood the role that learning plays in building healthy, thriving communities and despite significant cultural and historical differences, Canada’s First Nations, Inuit and Métis people share a vision of learning as a holistic, lifelong process.

“We have constantly measured the wrong things against a different paradigm — leading inevitably to an assessment of failure.”

– Canadian Council on Learning

Though developed for Indigenous peoples in Canada, the holistic approach can be applied to students of all cultural backgrounds. In fact, two of the top performing education systems in the world thrive using aspects of the holistic approach and lifelong learning model. Education systems everywhere are teaching a lifelong learning mindset so students can keep up in a fast-paced, digital world. It’s perhaps time these systems adopt the same mentality for early years assessment.

A key piece in making sure the holistic approach is implemented efficiently is technology. In today’s day and age, the approach doesn’t work without it. Technology makes it easy for teachers, caregivers and community members to be in sync with where and how the student is learning. Technology can aggregate and curate assessment results making it easily accessible to all stakeholders. In addition, from a student’s perspective interacting with technology in early assessment is crucial to developing the digital literacy required in today’s workforce.

Why should teachers advocate a holistic approach to early years assessment?

With more information at hand, a holistic approach helps identify every student’s learning strengths and encourages teachers to help students use their strengths to address their challenges in every educational setting. This allows educators to better inform instruction for each individual child.

A holistic approach to assessment yields better results and distributes the responsibility of educators by engaging caregivers. Not only that, but the positive impact of caregiver involvement has long shown to produce higher student achievement. By connecting caregivers and the community to learning in the classroom, caregivers can complement their child’s learning path with community and home-based activities.

Less work for teachers, more involvement of caregivers and improved learning results. 

For more information about a holistic approach to assessment or holistic education, send us an email at letstalk@spriglearning.com.

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