COVID-19 and literacy: Early years and the home learning environment

Manchester early years dad

Learning loss in the early years

  • Many families reported enjoying spending more time together at home (ADCS 2020; Reed and Parish 2021; Family Action 2021; Ipsos Mori 2020). 90% of families reported an increase in enriching activities, such as chatting, playing and reading, during lockdown (Oxford Brookes University 2020).
  • However, there has been a marked difference between children who have spent enhanced quality time at home with their parents, and those who have been at home in more difficult circumstances (Pascal et al 2020; Children’s Commissioner 2020; Ipsos Mori 2020; Buttle UK 2021).
  • COVID-19 has exacerbated factors that can influence the prevalence of parental depression, including economic hardship and job insecurity (Institute of Health Visiting 2020), and those who were disadvantaged already have been impacted more (Social Metrics Commission 2020; Johnson et al 2021; Parent Zone 2020). Poor parental mental health can impact on parents’ ability to develop a warm, sensitive and nurturing relationship with their child; this has implications for the home learning environment as the process by which children learn to think occurs through social interactions.
  • Because the impact of coronavirus is likely to be worse for those with lower incomes, the disparities in the quality of the home learning environments of children from disadvantaged families and others are likely to increase with the current crisis (EPI 2020).
  • 76% of schools reported that children who started Reception needed more support than children in previous cohorts (Bowyer-Crane et al 2021).

Our work

We are working across our Early Years and home learning environment programmes to combat the impact of COVID-19

In detail

Many families reported enjoying spending more time together at home as a result of social distancing regulations (ADCS 2020; Reed and Parish 2021).

  • 43% of family members have seen improved relationships with their children (Family Action 2021). 90% of families reported an increase in enriching activities during lockdown, such as chatting, playing and reading (Oxford Brookes University 2020).
  • 44% of parents felt their child’s brain and mind development would actually improve, with more time spent learning, playing and talking in the home (Ipsos Mori 2020).
  • 43% of parents felt their child’s language development had not been negatively impacted, and 37% said there had been a positive impact (Pascal et al 2020). A study of the vocabulary of over 1,700 children across 13 countries found that children gained more words than expected during the first lockdown period (Kartushina et al 2021).

However, there has been a marked difference between children who have spent enhanced quality time at home with their parents, and those who have been at home in more difficult circumstances, where the impact of coronavirus has been very disruptive (Pascal et al 2020; Children’s Commissioner 2020).

  • Disadvantaged parents were less likely to engage in enriching activities (Oxford Brookes University 2020), and parents who have experienced financial difficulties are more likely to say they have spent less quality time with their child (Ipsos Mori 2020).
  • A survey of disadvantaged families by Buttle UK found that only 3% of families felt there had been positives to the pandemic, including being able to spend more time together as a family (Buttle UK 2021).
  • During lockdown periods, practitioners provided virtual support to families, but there were stark disparities between disadvantaged parents and their more affluent peers in accessing this support (Pascal et al 2020).
  • Many families living in poverty don’t have the right kind of devices to support their children’s learning and development, such as touchscreen tablets and laptops, and are less likely to have access to reliable and fast internet connection (Outhwaite 2020; Marmot et al 2020). Find out more about how to get government help with technology during COVID-19.

For many families, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenging time.

  • Parental loneliness increased from 38% before the pandemic to 63% (Ipsos Mori 2020).
  • 65% of parents with young children at home were feeling stressed, worried or overwhelmed during the spring 2020 lockdown (Pascal et al 2020), while 33% of parents felt out of their depth (Action for Children 2020).
  • The pandemic has been particularly difficult for parents with very young children: pregnant women assessed during the COVID-19 pandemic reported more distress and mental health problems than pregnant women assessed before the pandemic (Berthelot et al 2020).
  • Children’s mental health may have been affected by COVID-19 as well. Almost 7 in 10 parents felt the changes brought about by COVID-19 were affecting their unborn baby, baby or young child (Saunders and Hogg 2020).

COVID-19 has exacerbated factors which can influence the prevalence of parental depression, including economic hardship and job insecurity (Institute of Health Visiting 2020). Poor parental mental health can impact on parents’ ability to develop a warm, sensitive and nurturing relationship with their child. This has implications for the home learning environment as the process by which children learn to think and understand occurs fundamentally through social interactions with others.

Because the impact of coronavirus is likely to be worse for those with lower incomes, the disparities in the quality of the home learning environments of children from disadvantaged families and others are likely to increase with the current crisis (EPI 2020). 76% of schools reported that children who started Reception in autumn 2020 needed more support than children in previous cohorts, with children struggling in particular with communication and language, personal, social and emotional development, and literacy (Bowyer-Crane et al 2021). Children in Reception during the first lockdown made less progress than expected, particularly in literacy and maths; those from disadvantaged backgrounds made less progress than their peers, although socioeconomic background was not a strong predictor of progress and was not linked with the amount of home learning parents were doing (Nash et al 2021).

Read our analysis and recommendations