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Power of books my wife grew up with

[This is my Local Living section column for July 22, 2010.]

My wife’s parents did not go to college. Linda’s father was a carpenter. Her mother was an aircraft assembly line worker. They grew up in Oklahoma farming families, married, moved to Southern California and raised their children in blue-collar neighborhoods full of families just like theirs.

Linda did go to college, a very selective one. Finding someone like her in that place was unusual. Some of the deans, to her annoyance, reminded her how fortunate she was to have come so far. There are many reasons why Linda became successful academically and professionally. But one did not occur to me until I read a new study about the relationship between books at home and educational attainment around the world.

The study, “Scholarly Culture and Educational Success in 27 Nations,” by four researchers in the United States and Australia, is worth reading by those in the Washington area, where the number of books varies so much from family to family and not necessarily because some parents are well-educated and others aren’t.

The study, based on 20 years of research, suggests that children who have 500 or more books in the home get, on average, 3.2 years more schooling than children in bookless homes. Even just 20 books makes a difference. The availability of reading material has a strong impact on a child’s education, even when controlling for the effects of parental education, father’s occupation, gender, nationality, political system and gross national product.

Linda remembers having at least 300 books in her home when she was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. Many of the books were hers, bought with her $1 weekly allowance and babysitter earnings, often cheaply through the Scholastic Book Club at school. But her father was also a big reader. His collection of Zane Greys and Bret Hartes filled the shelves he built in their home in Lawndale, Calif., with help from Linda’s great-uncle John, a cabinetmaker.

Linda’s parents purchased the Encyclopedia Americana when she was in intermediate school. They added copies of Reader’s Digest condensed books, a favorite of her mother’s. Linda devoured those volumes, along with untold numbers of books from her weekly trips to the library.

In other words, like many successful people in this area, she grew up in a book culture established by a family that could not afford many extras but made reading a priority.

The new study led by Mariah Evans of the University of Nevada, Reno, in the journal|http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/02765624 Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, shows the influence of home libraries on schooling is found nearly everywhere, and it has more power than I expected.

Anyone who has studied the effects of home on learning knows that books are important. The summer learning loss suffered by inner-city children is at least in part the result of them not being encouraged to read, studies suggest. I had associated book reading with affluent parents, because high family income also correlates with school success. But the international study found there was more to it than that.

Even the children of poor, illiterate parents in China, the study shows, on average attained the same academic level as the children of college graduates, if they had opportunities to read. Chinese children who had 500 or more books at home got 6.6 years more schooling than Chinese children without books, the study shows. “Having books in the home has a greater impact on children from the least educated families,” it says.

These book habits, as many parents know, never go away. We shampooed the carpets at our house this month, forcing me to move many volumes so the cleaners could get under the bookcases. It nearly killed me, but when Linda and I see books also piling up in the homes of our children, we know it is worth the effort.

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education web page.

By Jay Mathews  | July 21, 2010; 6:00 PM ET
Categories:  Local Living  | Tags:  500 books means 3.2 more years of education on average, Reno, University of Nevada, in China 6.6 years, more books in the home advances children's education, my wife's 300 books, scholar Mariah Evans  
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Comments

Used books are fortunately very cheap to come by these days. I can often get children's books for 3-4 per $1.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | July 21, 2010 6:28 PM | Report abuse

Are you surprised by this data? Although neither of our parents went to college (Mom did go to nursing school in the late '50s & earned her RN), my brother, sister & I all graduated. We were raised with the understanding that college is what you did after high school. Bi-weekly trips to the county library were normal. All 5 of us are voracious readers.

In my husband's family, unfortunately, it was a different story. Neither of his folks went to college & it wasn't encouraged for him or his 3 brothers. They were all expected to learn some type of vocational or technical skill to make their ways in the world. The lone sister however, decided when young that she wanted to be a teacher. Well, she started at community college & then transferred to UMD. It took her more than 7 years because she was always a part-time student, working & living at home the whole time. And no surprise, she's huge reader too.

Posted by: PorthosAD | July 21, 2010 10:50 PM | Report abuse

Every 3 months or so, the Prince George's County Memorial Library System has a book sale at the New Carrollton branch.
http://www.prge.lib.md.us/Lib/BookSaleFAQ.html
They do not identify when the next sale will occur.
Tons of books.

Posted by: edlharris | July 21, 2010 11:12 PM | Report abuse

This is interesting. Does this study imply that having the books in the home has more of an effect than, say, making frequent trips to the library? We go to the public library at least once a week, and part of the reason for that is that I don't want my house filled with books that are only likely to be read once (I am at the point now where I only buy reference books or picture books, which are read again and again). Also, if we had to purchase all the books we read every month, we wouldn't be able to pay the mortgage.

Posted by: floof | July 21, 2010 11:53 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Harris's comments are too simplified about cause and effect. I have some 40,000 books. While I have some extra education, I have two BAs and graduate school in history, I just work in a bookshop. I came East from Illinois to get culture. In Illinois the cultural event of the week was a basketball game.

Some of my early books were Reader's Digest, notably 1984. My mother's favorite writer was Zane Grey. She had a romanticism about the West.

Today, encyclopedias are passe. We had a Britannica which I seldom consulted. It is now much easier to find this information on the internet.

Much more important were certain teachers. One she had taught math to even non interested students. The student did better in math on the SAT than in her interest English. It may have been in her GRE.

In terms of teaching; I am certified; I find that some things are important, others aren't. I was certified in 4 major fields of education.

At 65 my main problem is disgorging myself of 40,000 books. I have to admit as of two years ago I at least know which I want to keep.

Posted by: mathandvt | July 22, 2010 12:24 AM | Report abuse

The presence of many books in the home is surely also a measure of the parents' habits. I've met people with advanced degrees who seldom read outside of the workplace. (They're the ones with few books.) I've also known a few people with no college degree who read quite a lot.

So I suspect that, when parents read a great deal--and discuss what they read--children are more likely to develop an interest in books. An eager, non-reading parent who ships 500 books into his or her home is not likely to feel the full benefit as measured by the research you cite.

That said, I also suspect that immediate access to books has an effect. A recent study suggested that low-income students who were given 20 books of their own choosing to read over the summer were less likely than their peers to suffer from summer slide.

Posted by: ClausvonZastrow | July 22, 2010 6:28 AM | Report abuse

I wonder- did the study determine whether the family had to own those 500 books? Our family probably has at least 50 books checked out from the library at any given time, and we visit the library at least once a week. (Shout out to excellent Arlington County libraries!)

Posted by: bubba777 | July 22, 2010 8:45 AM | Report abuse

These studies are so absurd.

Cognitive ability determines most--not all--of academic outcomes. Within a narrow range of comparison, having books in the home might signal more interest in academics. But it's a narrow range.

The idea that the mere presence of books improves outcomes, rather than signalling cognitive ability, is pretty absurd.

I was the first college graduate in my family. I was good at school. I loved to read. I am not so deluded as to confuse cause and effect, though.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | July 22, 2010 8:54 AM | Report abuse

when parents read a great deal--and discuss what they read--children are more likely to develop an interest in books. An eager, non-reading parent who ships 500 books into his or her home is not likely to feel the full benefit as measured by the research you cite.
***
I think I can subscribe to this thinking. My parents did not have 500 books in the house and were not avid readers, but they did have a couple hundred volumes, each one of which I read. I made up the difference with my own book collection and trips to the local library. I continued on to college and grad school on a "regular" schedule (finishing in 4 and 2 years, respectively). Neither of my brothers had book collections, and neither of them finished college. So, there's something to be said about the individual child, that she/he needs to have an interest in actually reading the books. Just being surrounded by books (especially those that are staged to be 'decorative') isn't enough.

Posted by: dcinvests | July 22, 2010 9:12 AM | Report abuse

One of the best investments my mother made was to purchase a set of World Book encyclopedias when we were in elementary school. Those books got us through school and each year an annual supplement came to update the set. We also made regular trips to the library. We were rather poor == a blue-collar family, and buying books was a luxury. My sister now volunteers at a day care center and reads books to pre-schoolers to get them interested in reading.

Posted by: Baltimore11 | July 22, 2010 9:51 AM | Report abuse

Very intresting study. I too grew up in a house with two high school educated parents (one with a GED) who pushed my brothers and I to read from an early age. This was a key to our professional and educational success in my opinion.

One of the other things my parents did that I thought was brilliant (and will be passing down to my 2 and 4 year old) is that we were able to stay up an extra half hour a night if we were reading.

Posted by: cdw1974 | July 22, 2010 11:33 AM | Report abuse

I've seen similar studies. The bottom line is that kids who read more do better in school. Jay's wife read those books in the house - she had access to books.
One must wonder why public library budgets are being slashed across the country by the same governments that say they value education....Public libraries level the playing field for kids whose parents can't afford books.

Posted by: Sky22 | July 22, 2010 12:22 PM | Report abuse

I was wondering about the library question, too. If a family regularly checks out books from the local library, is that equally effective? I worry about the emphasis on personal ownership of books; we've already seen public and school libraries massively defunded in the last 20 years, and a study like this could just contribute to the general feeling that everyone should own their own books, and if they can't afford it, too bad for them! I'd also like to know if electronic books make a difference. What if a family has no physical books, but has 1000 books on a couple of Kindle devices? Would the kids be as excited about reading books that way? I suspect not, but I'm old-fashioned.

Posted by: crazycatlady | July 22, 2010 12:22 PM | Report abuse

cdw1974 wrote: One of the other things my parents did that I thought was brilliant (and will be passing down to my 2 and 4 year old) is that we were able to stay up an extra half hour a night if we were reading.
__________________

That is brilliant!

As well as encouraging reading from our home library, my parents always made sure we were part of the community library's summer reading program. We took home as many books as we could carry, read them and pestered our parents for rides back to exchange them for more. They also let us have free time from chores on summer afternoons for reading - outside under the trees or in a quiet, cool corner inside. Bliss!

Posted by: talitha1 | July 22, 2010 12:42 PM | Report abuse

I've seen similar studies. The bottom line is that kids who read more do better in school. Jay's wife read those books in the house - she had access to books.
One must wonder why public library budgets are being slashed across the country by the same governments that say they value education....Public libraries level the playing field for kids whose parents can't afford books.

Posted by: Sky22
....................................
Public schools have bear the expense of the craze of standardized testing and computer programs to evaluate teachers based upon test results.

Currently there are thousands of children books that would encourage young children to read and enjoy reading. Public schools are not making deals with book publishers to flood their primary schools with these books. Instead they have to make deals with the testing companies.

I wonder if public schools today even have the old idea of a class lending library in primary public school.

Posted by: bsallamack | July 22, 2010 2:24 PM | Report abuse

Stephen Krashen's research supports what you say about the power of books.
http://www.sdkrashen.com/

Posted by: akmansfield | July 22, 2010 2:48 PM | Report abuse

Is the determining factor the presence of books or parents who encourage reading? If a parent says, "Read all you want to, but do it in some other room because your light is keeping me from seeing the TV," will that work as well as a parent who says, "Read or at least watch TV in the other room because I'm trying to read here"? And what about the ones who say, "If you're reading you haven't finished your work. Put down that book and do something useful"?

In other words, is just giving kids books enough?

Posted by: sideswiththekids | July 22, 2010 3:59 PM | Report abuse

While I think library visiting is wonderful, there is also something to be said for actually owning books. (I am also one of those people that never get books back on time, so I always have a fine. My husband thinks they should dedicate a wing, or at least a shelf, to me at our local library!) By making sure the child has a book that is "theirs", the parent is enforcing that reading is important enough to spend money on. We often shop the bargain bins at the bookstore and find wonderful volumes!

I think magazine reading can also be encouraging for kids. My son saw a Popular Science at the bookstore and loved it so we bought him a subscription. He anticipates it coming and reads it over and over again. I think magazines are a great way to get reluctant readers reading. Just pick a subject they love. Having mail come to them is fun for younger kids, and they'll be reading, often above their grade level.

I would also encourage parents to donate books to their local schools. I have a very hard time parting with my books, but last year brought several bags of books that were now too easy for my boys to the elementary school. The teachers loved being able to supplement their classroom libraries.

Posted by: jennypalmer1 | July 22, 2010 4:54 PM | Report abuse

Several years ago the reading specialist at my school asked us what factor correlated most highly with high achievement in reading. The answer was the amount of reading the child did at home.

We have known this information for a long time, but like a lot of information we have in education, it is often ignored. For example, Margaret McNamara, wife of Robert S. McNamara and a former teacher, noticed that poor children seldom had books in the home, so she started the non-profit organization Reading Is Fundamental in 1966 for the purpose of giving children books to keep. As a first grade teacher and reading specialist, I always found that this federal program was one of the most successful, and yet each year it is threatened with a loss of government support. I can tell you this with absolute certainty: this program has a more positive effect on children's achievement than inane practices such as test-prep and dollars for grades.

Although I was not as fortunate as Jay's wife, my education was also positively affected by books. My parents didn't own a single book, but I quickly became enamored by them when I was introduced to the public school library at the age of ten. The kind and patient librarian introduced me to books that I might like, and after that I was hooked. Becoming an avid reader led to a successful school career as well as scholarships and fellowships for college and graduate studies. Today I am the proud owner of a nice collection of children's picture books and (adult) first editions.

In my opinion, we don't make enough progress in education because we keep ignoring what we know. Research and common sense tell us that the following conditions are closely correlated to successful scholastic achievement:

Good health;

Strong language acquisition during the first five years of life;

Parental support and involvement;

Books in the home and home reading;

Effective teachers in the school.

And yet, we keep chasing "reforms" that have no basis in research or any history of success. If we could just emphasize "what works" instead of going for test prep, testing, merit pay and inexperienced teachers, maybe we'd see the improvements that we all covet.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | July 22, 2010 5:30 PM | Report abuse

This article is about OWNERSHIP. The article mentions "library" about 56 times and about 50 of those times the adjective in front is "home". Purchasing something implies it has value. The article does not talk about going to the library except to say that owning books is highly correlated with going to the library (p. 176).

Also, it isn't just about decoration. The fact that you have books in the house is correlated with the value that a parent places on them and education... and that transfers to the kid. More so with well-educated parents, but even so with uneducated ones.

Posted by: prokaryote | July 22, 2010 5:49 PM | Report abuse

"Purchasing something implies it has value. "

That's a pretty cynical viewpoint. I would argue that most of the things we value most in our family are things we have not purchased or spent money on. I don't pay for my friends, my husband, my children (except indirectly), my children's education (see above), the public parks we enjoy on the weekends... the list goes on and on. Oh, and I don't pay for sex, either ;).

I would also argue that a book that is read once, stuck on a shelf, and never looked at again *is* decoration. For better or for worse, most novels fall into that category.

FTR, I probably have over 500 books in my home, but these were purchased years ago and I can't bring myself to get rid of them. For now, I check everything out of the library unless: a)I can't get it there, or b)I find myself checking the same book out over and over. If I went out and bought 10 new books every week, we would quickly be appearing on one of those "Oprah" shows about hoarders.

Posted by: floof | July 22, 2010 6:53 PM | Report abuse

The study, based on 20 years of research, suggests that children who have 500 or more books in the home get, on average, 3.2 years more schooling than children in bookless homes.
...................................
These studies are so absurd.

Cognitive ability determines most--not all--of academic outcomes. Within a narrow range of comparison, having books in the home might signal more interest in academics. But it's a narrow range.

The idea that the mere presence of books improves outcomes, rather than signalling cognitive ability, is pretty absurd.

I was the first college graduate in my family. I was good at school. I loved to read. I am not so deluded as to confuse cause and effect, though.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier
.....................................
I agree with Cal_Lanier.

Besides are we really to believe that there is graph with x being the number of books and y being the number of years of education past that required by governments.

On this graph f(0) = y and f(500) = 3.2.

In the United States there is a requirement of 11 years of education since children can not leave school until they are 16 which normally equates to the 10th grade.

Apparently by this study for the United States 500 books or more in the home will mean a little more than 1 year of college.

For those who are going to rush out and buy 500 books.

One can use 1 and 1/2 inch as the average for hard cover books while 1/2 inch could be used for paper backs.

20 feet for 500 paperbacks. 62 feet for hard backs.

Make the book publishers happy this summer.

For e book readers you can not substitute electronic books since this 20 year study was started before e books were available.

In regard to this 20 year study I can just imagine the surprise of Americans as researchers rang their doorbells and requested that they be allowed to come in and count the number of books in their home.
...............................
I hope the government was not funding this 20 year study.

It did not require a 20 year study since everyone has known the importance of reading in education since the earliest schools were teaching children to read. Books simply happen to be now the principle vehicle for reading. Once scrolls instead of books served this purpose.

Posted by: bsallamack | July 23, 2010 1:07 PM | Report abuse

Just imagine if the researchers published a study of the advantages of children that know how to read before they enter the public schools.

Parents might start to teach their children to read before public schools instead of counting the number of books they have in their home and buying the number that will bring them to the magic number 500.

Posted by: bsallamack | July 23, 2010 1:14 PM | Report abuse

I agree with what some have posted here. . . that "books in the home" is less important because it indicates opportunities for students to read, but rather is a more global measure of the importance parents place on education. Asking parents how much they value their child's education is useless because they all say they do, very much. And other measures of behaviors you might care about "How much do you value it when your preschooler asks you questions?" are no good because parents can't compare themselves to other parents very readily. But books in the home is very concrete.

Posted by: DanielTWillingham | July 23, 2010 1:52 PM | Report abuse

"books in the home"...but rather is a more global measure of the importance parents place on education.
.......................................
Teach your child to read and enjoy reading before they enter school and you have provided your child with the best insurance policy of gaining the benefits of education.

The ability to read and enjoy reading is insurance against a poor or mediocre school since the ability to read gives a child or an individual to learn simply from reading books. This is the wonder of books.

A parent does not have to be a genius to do this for their child.

Besides do not look at this as a chore as there are a ton of children books in the public libraries that are fun for both parent and child.

Always read the book first by yourself. Torture is reading over and over a book to a child that you find the pits.

Once you have taught your child to read and enjoy reading you have given your child one of the best insurance policies for success in life.

Posted by: bsallamack | July 23, 2010 2:26 PM | Report abuse

For those with a preschool child obtain a copy of HedgeHog Bakes a Cake if at all possible.

Read this book to your child and then bake a cake using the Hedgehog's Yellow Cake recipe.

Repeat this weekly and your child will see the power and good tasting cake that can come from reading.

Do not hold me personally liable for the mess when your child later on wants to actively "help" in making the cake.

Posted by: bsallamack | July 23, 2010 4:23 PM | Report abuse

I grew up with parents who were very big on reading...we were the lower middle class, blue collar family, but my parents always spoke correct English and encouraged my reading and they read as well. We has a lot of books, but I was a big library user as well.
I also agree that language development in the "critical years" of birth to age five are key. My own family is a good example of that. We are a "blended" family. My three girls are mine. My husband's kids are adopted and were in foster care for a while. The birth mother not only didn't speak English, she only spoke "trash" Spanish. The kids only spoke this slang until they were put in foster care. The younger child has developmental disabilities and did not verbalize until age five! Years of speech therapy and at home practice and he's still unintelligible! Neither child is fluent in English, despite tremendous intervention, and I don't know if they ever will be. My girls are all voracious readers and my husband's kids don't read at all.
My house is full of books and I have always used the rule that a kid will get to stay up late if the time was spent reading. My daughters all had/have stashed flashlights in their rooms to continure once I really did enforce lights out.

Posted by: kodonivan | July 23, 2010 11:26 PM | Report abuse

Reading is the gateway to understanding. I remember reading Oh The Places You Go by Dr. Seuss in utero to all 3 of my children. The modeling and reading to and with my children will never end if I have anything to do with it. My grandparents ask me if we have enough books whenever they come over and look around. I always say, "No!" Can you ever have too many ideas? Books stimulate innovations and action. I love the possibilities that reading offers to all without socio-economic barriers.
We need to start preparing our children earlier to love reading.
Erika Burton, Ph.D.
http://www.steppingstonestogether.com

Posted by: SteppingStonesTogether | July 24, 2010 9:38 AM | Report abuse

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