Sabine Meinck & Agnes Stancel-Piątak

For decades, educational researchers have found that children from disadvantaged families often lack access to stimulating learning activities.[1][2] Back in 1995, a famous study called “The early catastrophe. The 30 million words gap” by Hart & Risley[3] uncovered a large gap in language exposure of toddlers between high and low-income families.  At the same time, a stimulating learning environment at home or in childcare settings is important for child development and later schooling outcomes.

Capturing information on early learning opportunities

TIMSS and PIRLS[4], two large-scale educational assessments of IEA[5], include an “Early Learning Survey[6][7]”. Parents of fourth-grade students are asked how often[1] they engaged with their children in early learning activities such as reading books, telling stories, counting things, or playing with construction toys, before they entered school.

This survey has inspired us to examine whether the importance of early learning opportunities for later schooling outcomes hold in different countries and cultures around the world. Our analysis included data from more than 30 education systems that participated in TIMSS 2011, TIMSS 2015 and PIRLS 2011. The results were published in a policy brief of IEA’s Compass: Briefs in Education series.[8]

High-educated parents engage more frequently into activities stimulating early learning

The analysis shows that highly educated parents engaged more often in learning activities with their children during early childhood than parents with lower levels of education. This finding holds across all countries.

Early learning activities are related to higher school performance

Our analysis also shows that students who – according to their parents – were more frequently engaged in early learning activities achieve higher scoresin the reading, mathematics, and science tests. The positive association between the frequency of early learning activities and achievement holds irrespectively of the education level of parents.

Children of highly-educated parents more frequently attend pre-primary education, and for a longer period of time

Moreover, compared to children with parents with lower levels of education, those with highly-educated parents attended pre-primary education for a longer period of time (Figure 1). For example, 82% of children with at least one parent holding a university degree attended institutionalized pre-primary education for 2 years or longer, while only 69% of other children did.

Figure 1. Percentage of children who attended pre-primary education, by parental education level (international average).

Why this matters and what we can learn from it

How frequently parents engage in early learning activities is related to students’ performance in primary school around the world. Further, children who attend pre-primary education also have higher levels of achievement later in school.[9][10][11][12]

It therefore seems that early learning opportunities at home or pre-school can help mitigate the learning gaps between socially disadvantaged and advantaged children. Therefore, we recommend efforts be made to increase participation in early childhood education programs, especially for disadvantaged children. Further, awareness should be raised amongst parents and caregivers regarding the lifelong impact of early learning, and opportunities should be offered to learn how to be more responsive to children’s needs.


[1] Response options: often, sometimes, never or almost never

About the author(s)

Sabine Meinck

Dr. Sabine Meinck works for the IEA in Hamburg, being head of both its Research and Analysis Unit and Sampling Unit. She is associate editor of the Springer journal Large-scale Assessments in Education. Furthermore, she is honored to serve as a peer reviewer for several scientific journals on educational research, and many educational research networks (such as AERA and CIES). Her main research interest lies with the science of cross-national large-scale assessments, and the methodological challenges of complex survey data.

Agnes Stancel-Piątak

Dr. Stancel-Piątak joined IEA Hamburg in 2013. She is the deputy head of Research and Analysis Unit and Sampling Unit. Her recent work focuses on framework development, scale validation and analysis. She is an editor of the forthcoming International Handbook of Comparative Large-Scale Studies in Education. Her major research interest is on educational effectiveness and social justice. She specializes in complex methods with a particular focus on multilevel and latent modeling with LSA data.