University of Jyväskylä

Dissertation: 29.8: Accounts of home factors influencing reading acquisition in low income families in Lusaka, Zambia (Chansa-Kabali)

Start date: Aug 29, 2014 12:00 AM

End date: Aug 29, 2014 03:00 PM

Location: Mattilanniemi, Agora, Gamma

Chansa-KabaliMA Tamara Chansa-Kabali defends her doctoral dissertation in psychology ”The Acquisition of Early Reading Skills: Influence of the Home Environment”. Opponent Elena Grigorenko (Yale University) and Custos Professor Heikki Lyytinen (Jyväskylän yliopisto). The event is in English.

The purpose of this study was to investigate factors influencing reading acquisition in 72 low income families in an African urban city in Zambia. The study revealed that a number of factors within the child’s earliest context of development—“the home environment” positively impacted children’s performance on reading skills. General home factors—contextual and proximal factors were investigated. The study showed that contrary to what most researchers have found, parental education and occupation did not influence children’s reading acquisition. The possible explanation is that the context from which the sample was recruited was homogenous—low income families. Thus, the demographic characteristics did not allow for wider variation. The implication of this finding is that in order to capture the influence parental education and occupation on reading, higher SES classes must be included in the sample. The other contextual factor that in most western and European countries is reported to negatively affect children’s academic achievement is family size. However, this study revealed that family size did not negatively impact the children’s outcomes on reading.  Large family sizes in Zambia are a cultural characteristic that many families have embraced as a way of life. Therefore having many people living in the household may not pose as a serious challenge to a child’s academic achievement. Another factor that defined the home living environment was family possessions. This included facilities as such as electricity, television, stove, running water, flushable toilet. Families who reported to possess these facilities had children performing better on the reading skills.

Assessment of proximal factors revealed that these factors influenced reading skills more than the contextual factors. In examining the influence of parental reading attitude, results showed that parents with more favourable attitudes towards reading had children ahead of their peers on reading outcomes. Similarly, those that reported to possess reading materials affected child scores better than those who had fewer printed materials. In terms of quantity of children’s reading materials, these families are constrained. Results showed that only 22% of the families possessed children’s books. The number of books in these families ranged from one to four. The scarcity of children’s reading materials is evident in these families. However other forms of printed materials such as used newspapers, magazines, the Bible, hymn books and other religious materials were available.  On the effect on reading skills, reading materials only explained variation on orthographic aware and not decoding. This could be because decoding is a higher order skill that may require some specialised knowledge and expertise to teach. Another finding was that families that engaged children in more reading interactions at home had children performing better.

The findings of this study are indicative of important directions that research on literacy acquisition should take in advancing the notion of embracing the contributions of the home environment in the process. This is regardless of the demographic characteristics. The proximal processes important for learning in the families need to be amplified so that contributions of the parents and families in children’s education are registered. This may empower the parents to confidently participate in children’s education. This may be achieved through sensitization programs as well as improving the home-school partnerships. In these partnerships, teachers can give guidance on how parents can create a home environment that positively affects reading acquisition. Teachers can also guide in how the families can engage in literate activities that benefit children. As such, extensive research and interventions must also focus on the children’s home environment as an interested party to the advancement of children’s education and wellbeing.

The research was part of a larger research project ”Learning environment for the acquisition of the basic reading and math skills: implementation study in a developing country with regular orthography”, funded by the Academy of Finland, and the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs through the Academy’s development research (decision number 133237). The project is also known as RESUZ (Reading Support for Zambian children). In addition to the project RESUZ, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland has supported the development and growth of expertise of CAPOLSA, the Centre for the Promotion of Literacy in Sub-Saharan Africa in the University of Zambia through the Higher Education Institutions Institutional Cooperation Instrument HEI ICI (decision numbers HELM406-5 and HELM406-10). In both projects, the coordinating partner and co-supporter has been the Agora Center of the University of Jyväskylä.

  • Further information

Tamara Chansa-Kabali was born in 1982 in Petauke in the Eastern province of Zambia. She started her primary education in 1989 at Kariba primary school in Siavonga, in the Southern province of Zambia. She proceeded to a Catholic mission boarding school called Josephs’ secondary in Monze, Southern province where she attended her secondary schooling from 1996 to 2000. In 2001, she was enrolled at the University of Zambia to pursue a Bachelor of Arts with Education (BA.Ed) with a major in Psychology. After completion in 2006, she received a scholarship as Fellow at the University of Zambia to pursue a Master of Arts Degree (MA) in Child and Adolescent Psychology. This was done on a collaborated programme between the University of Zambia and Leiden University in the Netherlands. Upon completion in 2009, she was employed as a member of the academic staff in the Department of Psychology, University of Zambia. From 2009 to present, she still holds the same job.

The dissertation is published in the series Jyväskylä Studies In Education, Psychology and Social Research 502. URN:ISBN:978-951-39-5799-5, ISBN 978-951-39-5799-5 (PDF), ISBN 978-951-39-5798-8, ISSN 0075-4625. It is available at the University Library’s Publications Unit, +358 (0)40 805 3825,


Tamara Chansa-Kabali, Phone; email address:; phone: +260 977 765946
Communications officer Anitta Kananen, tel. +358 40 805 4142,




Reading is essential for children’s educational success and communication in a

technologically advancing society. This position has provoked researchers to investigate

the process of reading acquisition. Although a number of factors inhibit and facilitate the

process of its acquisition, many studies in Zambia focus on the schools, classroom and the

language of instruction. Hence, this study explored other contexts that might be

responsible for influencing the process. Addressed in the present study are factors that

influence acquisition of reading skills (orthographic awareness and decoding) in the home

environment. The present study was part of larger project called Reading Support for

Zambian children (RESUZ). The aim of the RESUZ project was to explore different factors

that would possibly influence acquisition of first graders’ reading skills. The design of the

RESUZ project was experimental and recruited 576 children from 42 schools in Lusaka

Urban. For the present study, a mixed methods (quantitative and qualitative) design was

utilised to investigate the contribution of home environment factors to reading skill

acquisition. Seventy-two first grade learners from nine schools were purposefully selected

from the 42 RESUZ schools. The home environments for 72 learners were assessed using a

structured home literacy questionnaire. Additionally, a semi structured interview guide

was used for the qualitative inquiry with few parents (n=12). Reading skills were assessed

through orthographic awareness and decoding competence tests that were developed

locally by the RESUZ team. Children were assessed at two different time points in their

first year of schooling. Hierarchical regression analyses showed that children’s home

environments were experienced differently and significantly impacted children’s reading

skills. These home environment factors included family possessions (electricity, stove,

television, running water, flushable toilet and a car). Another factor that significantly

explained variation in children’s reading skills was parental reading attitudes. Parents who

favourably ascribed to reading as an important activity in the home had children

performing better on reading skills. Further, results showed that reading materials

predicted orthographic awareness and not decoding. With family literacy activities,

children who experienced more literacy interactions in the home produced significantly

higher scores than their peers. Although results based on parents’ and teachers’ views

revealed weak home-school relations, it was found that affirmative parental views on the

school positively impacted children’s scores on the reading outcomes. Differing views on

parental involvement between teachers and parents also emerged. Further, qualitative

inquiry confirmed that high achieving learners experienced a more literate home

environment than low achieving learners.

Key words: Home literacy environment, parent reading attitude, literacy activities, reading

materials, early reading skills, orthographic awareness, decoding competence, low income

families, Zambia.