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The More Books at Home,
The Higher the Childs Education

The presence of books in the home has a greater influence on a childs level of education than does the parents income, nationality, or level of education. A 20-year study shows how investing in books can make a big difference. Included: Highlights of the study.

Educators long have believed that the top predictor of whether a child attained a high level of education was highly-educated parents. A 20-year international study, however, has revealed an even bigger predictor of a childs academic success: the presence of books in the home. Regardless of nationality, level of education, or their parents economic status, children who grew up with books in their homes reached a higher level of education than those who did not, according to the study, Family Scholarly Culture and Educational Success: Books and Schooling in 27 Nations published in Research in Social Stratification and Mobility.

Having as few as 20 books in the home has a significant impact on a childs ascent to a higher level of education, the study found. The more books in the house, the greater the benefit. According to a press release about the study, In some countries, such as China, having 500 or more books in the home propels children 6.6 years further in their education. In the United States, the effect is less -- 2.4 years, rather than the 3.2-year average advantage experienced across all 27 countries in the study.

The research was led by Dr. Mariah Evans, an associate professor of sociology and resource economics at the University of Nevada, Reno. She was joined by researchers from UCLA and The Australian National University. The project is one of the largest and most comprehensive studies ever conducted on influences on the level of education a child will attain.

Evans talked with Education World about the study and the implications of the findings.

Dr. Mariah Evans

Education World: What surprised you most about the study results?

Dr. Mariah Evans: I think the most important findings are that having books in the home helps children from families in all walks of life and all around the world go further in school, and that the beneficial effect is greatest for children from disadvantaged homes.

EW: How would you explain the findings?

Evans: We have some hypotheses that we are testing in current projects. We suspect that:
Reading with very small children -- and talking about the books as you read -- makes a big difference.
Homes in which books are used to adjudicate questions of fact, rather than debating them as though they were matters of opinion, make an important contribution to childrens learning strategies.
Children watch what their parents do, so reading at home is very important in a role-modeling sense.
Children gain skills and culture/content from the books in the home.
These skills and content help children perform better on standardized tests.
Bookish homes help children like school and see their teachers as valuable coaches. Both performing well and liking school encourage youth to persist in education, even when the going gets tough.

I admit that is quite a load of hypotheses, but thats how we suspect the process works. There is some existing research that supports each of those hypotheses; our goal is to make an integrated research plan so we can see clearly how the pieces fit together and how large the impacts are.

"findings suggest that helping parents learn how to read to small children in programs like Early Head Start is key."
EW: Did just the presence of books make a difference, or is there data to show how the books were utilized?

Evans: Getting researchers across a wide range of countries to include the single question on books was a huge effort and we would not have had a snowballs chance in July of getting more questions in. There are excellent data of some of the stages of the process where we can differentiate those things. For example, in the part of our research program predicting performance on standardized tests, there are excellent data on many aspects of reading-related behavior and on standardized test performance for an even wider array of countries than we have used here. So we will be able to know what kinds of books, what kind of home context, and what kinds of reading-related behaviors are most relevant to standardized test performance. In fact, were hoping to have our paper on the topic submitted to a peer-reviewed journal soon.

EW: What, if any, effect did the number of adult books in the house versus the number of childrens books have? That is, what if the parents did not own many books but gave their children a lot of books?

Evans: We have only the single measure -- the number of books of any kind around the house. This means that the effect we observe is a kind of average effect: It is likely to be larger for some kinds of books and smaller for others, but we only observe the average. The [idea of] parents not reading or owning books themselves and still giving them to the children is not something we could find out about from the data on hand, but it is an unlikely scenario. We know from existing research that reading is a behavior that transfers strongly from generation to generation.

"I think the most important findings are that having books in the home helps children from families in all walks of life and all around the world go further in school and the beneficial effect is greatest for children from disadvantaged homes."
EW: How can educators use this information?

Evans: The studys findings are important for educators in several ways. They emphasize how important it is to teach parents when possible. For example, findings suggest that helping parents learn how to read to small children in programs like Early Head Start is key. The study also suggests that parent education emphasizing realistic goals of introducing even a small amount of reading into their and their childrens lives can have substantial beneficial effects on later school performance.

In short, the results emphasize how important the partnership between families and schools is. It also has some important implications for situations where drug abuse and violence make school-family partnerships difficult: Enlisting community volunteers in after-school programs that include a component of one-on-one reading with children would seem a promising route. Educators also can use this information to explain to legislators why schools need to be judged not on outcomes per se, but on value added: In neighborhoods where the school has excellent partnering with the local families it is much easier to meet targets than in neighborhoods where school staff members are trying to do their work and the work normally done by families as well.

This e-interview with Dr. Mariah Evans is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.

Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2010 Education World

Published 09/28/2010