Monday, March 04, 2013

Are books just magic?

March is National Reading Awareness Month. The NEA has picked this month to celebrate reading and encourage  American school children to put down the video games and pick up a book. Here at BFB we think every month should be a reading month and we know you do too! Of course, May is Get Caught Reading Month, October is National Reading Group Month, November is Picture Book Month, and December is National Novel Reading Month and there are other weeks and days set aside to celebrate books and reading in all their forms.

One thing I have found interesting is the correlation between books in a home and a child's academic performance. Using data from the World Inequality Study, researchers pooled data from over 73,000 people in 27 countries and found that across cultures, ethnicities, and economic differences, books were an essential component to a child's academic success. From the abstract of this fascinating study:
 "Children growing up in homes with many books get 3 years more schooling than children from bookless homes, independent of their parents’ education, occupation, and class. This is as great an advantage as having university educated rather than unschooled parents, and twice the advantage of having a professional rather than an unskilled father. It holds equally in rich nations and in poor; in the past and in the present; under Communism, capitalism, and Apartheid; and most strongly in China."
Isn't that amazing? Regardless of the political regime under which a child lives, the education levels of his parents, or if he is privileged or poor, the number of books in a child's home is the single most common and reliable indicator of whether he will be academically successful. The presence of a large amount of books seems to indicate a "scholarly culture – the way of life in homes where books are numerous, esteemed, read, and enjoyed." The study's authors went about their research in such a way as to determine if this "scholarly culture" was limited to western families in which the parents were highly educated and had achieved some measure of financial success. Or, as the authors themselves put it: "We seek to establish whether it has an impact on children’s education only in a handful of rich Western nations at the end of the 20th century, or whether it is important in all rich nations, or in all market economies, or under Communism, or only in recent decades rather than in past generations."

Trying to control for all these factors, the researchers found that asking study participants about the size of their childhood home library was the single most reliable indicator of the cultivation or neglect of a scholarly culture. Even more interesting, "analysis of many different aspects of the home environment finds that home library size has strong predictive validity as an indicator of parents’ attraction to the teaching role vis a vis their children." 

For home educators this completely makes sense, you are both parent and educator and you do not see a strong distinction between these two roles. It also seems to me to be an indicator of a home culture that nurtures curiosity. People who collect books are curious, they seek to know new things and expand their world. And these people are probably eager to share that knowledge with others and that would, of course, include their children. And so, whether the parent is formally educated or not, wealthy or poor, western or eastern, the size of his library is a key indicator to the sort of parent he will be and the home culture he will create. 

And that home culture is a key indicator of academic achievement for the children raised in that family. "Growing up in a home with 500 books would propel a child 3.2 years further in education, on average, than would growing up in a similar home with few or no books. This is a large effect, both absolutely and in comparison with other influences on education," said University of Nevada research team leader sociologist M. D. R. Evans. "A child from a family rich in books is 19 percentage points more likely to complete university than a comparable child growing up without a home library."

And again, this data holds true across cultures regardless of a nation's wealth, political system or culture. There are variations between nations, for example a child growing up in China with a home library of 500 or more books will go on to complete an average of 6.6 years more education than a comparable child from a bookless home. In the US, the same situation would result in 2.4 more years of education. That's the difference between going to college for two years and completing a four-year degree.  

As with all studies, there are exceptions. There will inevitably be families who have loads of books and a child who struggles to read or is simply not academically wired. I do not believe that college is for everyone and I think our culture severely undervalues non-academic skills. I think the value of studies like this is that they show trends that can be very telling. Children benefit from a home culture that encourages learning, curiosity, and exploration. 

For home educators who are fostering that "scholarly culture" this study should provide some encouragement. For those of you who are interested in national trends, educational inequality for the poor, and other social justice issues, this can stand as a warning and call for action. In America, more than half of our children are not read aloud to each day. Other studies show that up to 61% of poor families do not own a single children's book. This means that the educational potential of millions of children is at risk through no fault of their own. 

So during National Reading Awareness Month, maybe it would be a good idea to spread the love a bit. Volunteer at your local library. See if you can sign up to read aloud to underprivileged children. Donate books to a struggling school. Check out First Book, an organization that gives books to children. Give books instead of toys at birthday parties. Encourage other parents to read aloud to their children. And, of course, read a great book with your children.

If you're wondering how to build a great family library, here's some wonderful resources:

Books that Build Character

For The Children's Sake

Honey For a Child's Heart


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  1. Great post! Those stats are amazing, and what an incredible encouragement. It reminds me of the story of Dr. Ben Carson (who recently spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast), raised by a single mom in the ghetto, but a mom who made her children read books! Today, Carson is one of the world's great pediatric neurosurgeons.

    1. I was thinking exactly the same thing when I was writing it! Dr. Carson is the perfect example of the difference a parent who values learning can make. I loved that Dr. Carson's mother, even though she was illiterate, still made them write reports on the books they read...and they didn't know she couldn't read the reports. Amazing.