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Critique of Study:
Stuart, M., Dixon, M., Masterson, J. & Quinlan, P. (1998) Learning to read at home and at school. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 68, 3-14
This assignment aims to present a balanced critique of Stuart et al (1998) by considering the aspects of its purpose, design, methodology, analysis and discussion in order to present a reasonable decision on its effectiveness, reliability and validity as a piece of educational research. The study aimed to identify social class differences in home and school reading activities and the factors which may underlie this (Stuart et al, 1998). Research has indicated that children from high SES backgrounds often achieve higher than children from low SES backgrounds although this is often influenced by the amount of time and resources available to families (Hecht et al, 2000; Li and Christ, 2007). Despite this, opposing research contends that educators can hold misconceptions about social class and reading and must develop an awareness of how to support children of all social classes equally to ensure balanced and fair literacy instruction for all (Shannon, 1985). This existing theory provides a solid basis on which to summarise and critique the argument and research put forward by Stuart et al (1998).
Stuart et al (1998) set out to explore the differences in literacy activities taking place in homes of different social class and background which in turn may influence the reading achievement of children. The data was gathered from 61 parents of children from working and middle-class occupations as defined on the Registrar General’s (1991) and used to determine differences in reading quotients, reading ages and the types of activities taking place in these homes that may influence achievement (Stuart et al, 1998). The study concluded that ‘very few differences were found by social class, and those found did not relate clearly to reading achievement’. (Stuart et al, 1998, p. 1).
The literature review set out by Stuart et al (1998) provides a background on which their research is built and aims to present ‘reasonably well-articulated theory of the phenomenon’ (Robson and McCartan, 2015, p.82). The literature review makes reference to the impact of parents reading to children (Wells, 1982; Wells, 1986), the benefits of home-school cooperation (Tizard et al, 1982; Hewison, 1988) and the benefits of pre-attained phonological awareness on producing better readers in school (Raz and Bryant, 1990). The research presents a reasonably strong context but whilst reading it became apparent that for a study which set out to ‘explore possible social class differences in literacy activities within the home’ (Stuart et al, 1998, p. 12), very little of the theoretical context focused particularly on this area.
Various studies on social class are alluded to, however, only the Raz and Bryant (1990) article is explained in more detail with Stuart et al (1998) summarising its discovery that social class differences accounted for better reading achievement in middle class families but other factors aside from parental involvement must have an effect on this. To bring more reliability and criticality to the article, the researchers may have benefitted from providing a deeper and more comparative approach through suggesting an opposing view. This critical approach to compare and contrast could later help to identify the gap that needs to be researched and explored (Jesson and Lacey, 2006).
Stuart et al (1998) highlight that the aim of their study is to explore social class differences in literacy activities and the effect this may have on reading achievement. This research question and the idea that Stuart et al (1998) knew the direction their study would take situates it as a fixed design. This correlates with Robson and McCartan’s (2016, p.75) view of fixed research as requiring ‘a tight pre-specification before you reach the main data collection stage’.
However, following data collection, Stuart et al (1998) expanded their questions further by focusing on social class differences in children reading to parents and parents reading to children alongside differences in phonological activities and alphabetic activities at home. The questions were answerable from the data collected although it could be argued that the small sample size would limit the ‘true’ answerability of these questions as a smaller sample could lead the researchers to miss or fail to identify particular relationships within the population (Suter, 2012).
Whilst reading it became apparent that Stuart et al (1998) followed the layout of a fixed research design which ‘set out to explore possible social class differences in literacy activities within the home, which might account for the observed social class differences in children’s reading achievement’. This coincides with Robson and McCartan’s (2015) view of fixed research as the testing of and building on pre-existing theoretical ideas or concepts. The decision to situate data numerically and to establish links and correlations further suggests elements of a fixed design approach in which relationships between variables are considered (Robson and McCartan, 2015).
Although possessing various elements of a fixed research design, Stuart et al (1998) highlight a desire to explore other factors which underlie social class differences and begin to touch on theory generation with their speculation surrounding middle class parent’s income affecting access to alphabet teaching materials and the amount of time provided for these activities at home. This is indicative of research which sets out to generate new theory and follows inductive logic (Robson and McCartan, 2015).
Sample size of 61 gathered from a proposed sample of 100 children. The sample was encouraged to take part in the study by the researcher’s presence in the school and through further invitation (Stuart et al, 1998). It can be assumed that the researchers were following a convenience sampling strategy in that they were ‘choosing the nearest and most convenient persons’ (Robson and McCartan, 2015). Despite proceeding with only a 66% participation rate (Stuart et al, 1998), it must be noted that this raises concerns regarding true representation of all members of the population. Notably, this style of convenience sampling can make generalizability limited only to the sample studied and can fail to represent other important sub-groups within the sample (Bornstein et al, 2013). Research validity may have been improved via the use of a proportionate stratified sampling method which would allow particular groups or sub-groups within the population to be represented whose mean may be closer to that of the population (Robson and McCartan 2015).
With only 61 parents sampled from a proposed sample of 100, it must be noted that concerns may arise regarding the validity and generalizability of this study due to a limited sample size. This is highlighted by Robson and McCartan (2015) who note that for more reliable and accurate results, it is advisable that a larger sample is used and this must be considered prior to conducting any research.
Methods (Data Collection)
Primary data collection took place via a semi-structured interview which followed a pre-designed semi-structured questionnaire which involved parents meeting with the researcher and the interviewer transcribing responses (Stuart et al, 1998). The researchers raised a point regarding possible response bias due to a need for social approval, however concluded that they felt from interviewer observation this was not the case (Stuart et al, 1998). Despite the researchers use of interviewer ‘impression’ and knowledge of children’s letter name knowledge (Stuart et al, 1998), it is vital that the utmost dedication is taken to limit interviewees opportunities to provide answers which raise their social status or circumstances in which responses may be affected by the social environment (Hyman and Sierra, 2010).
Although situated as a fixed research design, Stuart et al’s (1998) choice of semi-structured interviews is interesting as this often entails ‘freedom in the sequencing of questions, in their exact wording and in the amount of time and attention given to different topics’ (Robson and McCartan, 2015, p. 290). The article contradicts this in that it was stated interviewers asked questions in a pre-determined order and with the same questions used by all interviewers (Stuart et al, 1998). This calls into question the reliability of the design and whether the researchers possessed a true understanding of how best to collect the data they required.
Throughout the report, it became apparent that direct reference towards ethical consideration was not made. Attempts were made to make the parents aware of the study through the researcher’s presence in school and letters sent home inviting parents to be a part of the research – thus clearly generating consent (Stuart et al, 1998). However, an issue can be raised as to how ‘informed’ this consent was. Although the parents understood the interview as gathering information regarding occupation, time spent reading to and listening to their child and other literacy activities at home, it is later stated that this interview was only used as an ‘adjunct’ to the real purpose of the interview, which was to explore the additional texts used at home (Stuart et al, 1998). This raises concerns as to how ethical the practice may have been as it appears the researchers chose to withhold information about what they were truly studying which can be questionable in research (Robson and McCartan, 2015). Perhaps the ethical nature of the study could have been improved if parents were made aware of exactly what the research entailed (use of an informed consent form) or through participant checking to ensure well-being and consent was still intact following the interview (Robson and McCartan, 2015).
Stuart et al (1998) approached data analysis in a quantative manner, indicative of their fixed design approach. Data was presented in tabular form with data describing children’s reading age based on social class (Table 3). Tables 4 (p.8) and 7 (p.10) present statistical analysis of findings including mean and standard deviation of time spent reading and children’s knowledge of letter sound names. Additionally, Table 5 (p.9) and Table 6 (p.10) present the frequency of responses presented by parents on Likert Scale and closed questions (Stuart et al, 1998).
Data was analysed via the use of chi squared, P-Values and R values used to represent the significance and correlation of the relationships discovered within the data (Stuart et al, 1998). The use of tests such as chi squared was beneficial in that it allowed the researchers to explore the degree of association between variables (Robson and McCartan, 2016).
Through statistical analysis, Stuart et al (1998) were able to determine that working class children were likely to have a lower or at expected reading age, that social classes didn’t vary significantly in children’s reading time, middle class parents claimed to read to their children more often, phonological awareness activities had little effect on reading achievement and the use of alphabetic materials by social class had little statistical variance.
Although many of the researchers finding were ‘statistically significant’, reference must be made to the large standard deviations present particularly in Table 4 (p.8). Stuart et al (1998) state a significant difference between middle class and working class regarding the amount of time spent reading, however, the large standard deviation (98.6 for middle class and 62.2 for working class) suggests there was a proportion of respondents who deviated positively or negatively from the mean (Robson and McCartan, 2016). This is important to consider, as it suggests a degree of variability which could affect the generalisability of the finding to a larger population.
Additionally, Stuart et al (1998) make reference to a significant correlation between reading time and chronological age although this is contradictory of figures given by Rowntree (1981) which suggests the .32 to have a weak effect. Therefore, this finding suggests a ‘significant’ relationship between two variables which are of little relevance to the study. This danger is expressed by Robson and McCartan (2015) who state that establishing significance does not always mean variables are casually related nor does it provide an understanding of what causes such a relationship.
Stuart et al (1998) concluded that although middle class parents read more to their children, this does not have a significant impact upon reading achievement and infer that this may have an effect in later reading development. This inference could have been given more validity had the pre-test reading scores used for comparison taken account of the other elements of reading such as comprehension. This could have been achieved through additional collection of data that would allow for triangulation which in turn could bring more validity and strength to this inference (Robson and McCartan, 2015).
It was observed that middle class parents were more likely to teach letter sounds and play games such as I Spy (Stuart et al, 1998), however, this interpretation is dependent upon the information provided by parents and opens itself to social desirability bias (Robson and McCartan, 2015). Although efforts were made to explain the factors which may have reduced social bias (parent’s responses on the scale and relaxed attitude) more reliability could have been given to the results had efforts to reduce social desirability been utilised such as improving anonymity or by limiting the respondent’s knowledge of what is being measured (Mitchell and Jolley, 2012). This however, raises questions of ethics and engaging in a process of deception is often looked upon with greater suspicion (Robson and McCartan, 2016).
- Stuart, M., Dixon, M., Masterson, J. & Quinlan, P. (1998) Learning to read at home and at school. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 68, 3-14.
- Hecht, S., Burgess, S., Torgesen, J., Wagner, R. & Rashotte, C. (2000) Explaining social class differences in growth of reading skills from beginning kindergarten through fourth-grade: The role of phonological awareness, rate of access, and print knowledge. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 12, 99-127.
Li, G. & Christ, T. (2007) Social capital and home literacy engagement: case studies of low-SES single mothers’ access to literacy resources, English in Education, 41 (1), 21-36.
Robson, C. & McCartan, K. (2015) Real World Research. 4th Edition. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
Jesson, J. & Lacey, F. (2006) How to do (or not to do) a critical literature review. Pharmacy Education, 6 (2), 139-148.
Suter, W. (2012) Introduction to Educational Research: A Critical Thinking Approach. 2nd Edition. London: Sage Publications Ltd.
Bornstein, M., Jager, J. & Putnick, D. (2013) Sampling in developmental science: Situations, shortcomings, solutions, and standards. Developmental Review, 33 (4), 357-370.
Hyman, M. & Sierra, J. (2010) Marketing Research for Dummies. Canada: Wiley Publishing Inc.
Mitchell, M. & Jolley, L. (2012) Research Design Explained. 8th Edition. Wadsworth: Cengage Learning.
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