Maternal Literacy Level

Sep 12, 2009
Maternal Literacy Level Associated With the Cognitive Home Environment

Literacy levels of low-income mothers appear to be a more accurate indicator of parenting behaviors that are important for child development than maternal educational levels, according to a report in the September issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.

“Children who grow up in low-income households have an increased risk of developmental delay and poor school achievement, contributing to an ongoing cycle of poverty,” according to background information in the article. The cognitive home environment (provision of toys and learning materials, shared reading activities, teaching activities and verbal responsivity in the home) is an important contributing factor; “low-income families have fewer parent-child verbal interactions and less access to resources, including learning materials.”

Cori M. Green, M.D., M.S., of the New York University School of Medicine and Bellevue Hospital Center, New York, and colleagues analyzed results from maternal literacy tests and interviews determining maternal educational level and the cognitive home environment of 369 mother-infant pairs. Mothers were assessed during their postpartum hospital stays and when infants reached age 6 months. Literacy tests consisted of word reading skills in the mother’s preferred language (English or Spanish) and were graded as reading at high school level (ninth grade or above) or lower than ninth grade.

Cognitive home environment was scored using StimQ, an office-based measure with four subscales: availability of learning materials, shared reading activities, frequency and quality of teaching activities parents engage in with their children and verbal interactions between parents and their children.

Mothers’ average reading grade level was 12 and 34.5 percent read below the ninth grade level. “Educational and reading levels showed only small to moderate correlation; 24.1 percent of those who completed ninth grade did not read at a ninth grade level, and 43.9 percent of those who did not complete ninth grade read at ninth grade level or higher,” the authors write.

“Maternal literacy level of ninth grade or higher was associated with increases in scores for the overall StimQ and each of four subscales, whereas a maternal educational level of ninth grade or higher was associated with increases in scores for the overall StimQ and three of four subscales,” the authors write.

Literacy may be a more precise indicator of cognitive home environment than educational level in low-income families, according to the authors. “Studies of low-income populations should therefore include direct measures of literacy level.

Given the relationship between low literacy level and parenting behaviors known to be related to child outcomes, pediatricians should consider developing strategies to identify mothers with low literacy levels in order to support the cognitive home environments for children of low-literacy parents,” the authors conclude.

Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2009;163[9]:832-837.