Books in the Home: Making Better Readers or More Skeptical Parents?

Don't skip the school book fair.  Don't even think about recycling the book flyer coming home in the back pack. Don't even try to deny your child the boxed set of Captain Underpants. 

Books in the home make better readers.

Subtext: Buying books for your kids will make them smarter.

Says who?

Scholastic, the "read every day.  lead a better life" people, yes, the kiddie book publishers.  The biggest kiddie book publisher. 

While I'm a devoted fan of reading every day and leading a better life you can imagine my amusement in finding this claim from the people who produce and peddle the largest share of educational materials to our nation's youths and thus your bloated bookshelves. The people who help shape the minds of future doctors, teachers and one worries publishers not keen on accuracy. 

You can understand how in my pre-menstrual and perhaps peri-menopausal frame of mind (get used to it) I took to this claim with my daughter's red Sharpie.  How I sometimes miss grading student exams! It was as if I was 5 years old again playing school with my father's discarded mimeographed math tests. Upon seeing the letter I recalled a study from a couple years ago linking number of books in the home to a kid's educational achievement.  I had little choice but to write my own letter to the VIPs at Scholastic including Kyle Good, Senior Vice President, Corporate Communications.

Dear Mr. Good,

I'm a huge fan of Scholastic and like my children get excited when the book flyers come home from school in their backpacks.  I'm like a kid in a candy store.  So it was with some apprehension I read the note that accompanied the recent flyers, a form letter appeared to be generated by your company and copied by my daughter's teacher. I'm concerned it contains inaccurate or misleading information about books and reading.  
The top of the form showcases the statement "research shows books in the home make better readers." I'm wondering which study found this conclusion or where the company found this information.  A former researcher, I now write and review studies related to children's health and well-being and remember a large 2010 study by Mariah Evans of the University of Nevada finding the more books in a child's home, the higher the child's ultimate education level.  Curiously it didn't conclude reading the books predicted student progress. Is this the study behind the reading factoid? 
The 2010 study is correlational and cannot offer evidence that a home library "creates" or "causes" anything be it better students, readers or more educated ones.  Even if the number of books in a home does influence a child's educational achievement it is also probably true that other factors influence both and could be largely responsible for this correlation - say how often a child reads or how much parents value reading or education. Parents who buy books likely engage in a variety of other messages and behaviors that promote higher education such as, off the top of my head, attending school events, making sure homework gets done, encouraging lots of questions and talk at the dinner table. Unfortunately the above study didn't untangle those messy relationships. I trust Scholastic, a respected leader in the field of educational publishing, strives to present parents and kids with the best possible knowledge and thus will delve into this potentially inaccurate material. 
Thank you,
Polly Palumbo

To his credit, Mr. Good responded within the hour to my email:

Dear Dr. Palumbo,

Thank you for writing and sharing your concern about the letter which referenced the University of Nevada study.  As you point out, many factors contribute to the educational outcomes for children, and the statement you quote from the letter will be reviewed with the editorial team to be sure that the findings from this and other studies on the impact of reading at home and books in the home will be presented with greater care and accuracy in the future.

We appreciate hearing from you and we value your comments.  Please feel free to contact me in the future as we continue to strive to provide top quality information, programs and services to the children, families and teachers we serve. 

Kyle Good
Senior Vice President, Corporate Communications

Just as I suspected, the 2010 University of Nevada study I dug up on
The study was conducted over 20 years, in 27 countries, and surveyed more than 70,000 people. Researchers found that children who grew up in a home with more than 500 books spent 3 years longer in school than children whose parents had only a few books. Also, a child whose parents have lots of books is nearly 20-percent more likely to finish college.

The researchers were struck by the strong effect having books in the home had on children's educational attainment even above and beyond such factors as education level of the parents, the country's GDP, the father's occupation or the political system of the country.

Having books in the home is twice as important as the father's education level, and more important than whether a child was reared in China or the United States
Note the causation. The researchers were struck by the strong effect having books in the home had on children's educational attainment...

Even the lead author implied the study demonstrated causation. In a press release Mariah Evans, an associate professor of sociology and resource at the University of Nevada, Reno reported "parents who have books in the home increase the level of education their children.  All the media on this study used causal language including Science Daily.

Note there is no link between actual reading and educational attainment. Might there be a link? Not in this study.

Now I don't know if researchers asked about the actual reading of books. According to the press release this study is one of the largest and most thorough studies conducted on the factors behind children's ultimate educational level. It'd be surprised if the researchers didn't think to ask how much kids read (including material in the home) in a massive international effort claiming to be the most comprehensive of its kind. I'm guessing because it wasn't included in any media reports (and possibly the journal article itself) that researchers didn't find a link between reading and education. I could be wrong because I didn't want to pay $31.50 to read the article. Talk about a travesty in publishing. How odd a study advocating for more purchased printed information in the home is too costly for me to read. Offensive.

I am a huge fan of books from Scholastic, Amazon, the public library, those independent bookstores having a rough go of it, free cycle at the local dump, my friends, my mom.  Ten books are stacked on my bedside table and ten more next to it.  I love books and reading books. I am not here to say reading makes no difference.  I love hearing about the programs distributing books to kids. I've given money to them. Huge fan.  But really, owning a book is  not the same thing as reading it and simple ownership does not a scholar make. There's a litte more to it. 

Sadly I haven't heard back from Mr. Good or any other editorial team members from Scholastic so I may be forced to email again.  Just to follow up.

I emailed the lead researcher to request a copy of the study (free reprints/digital version are standard) and also asked if the study included actual reading measures.  Never heard back.  This is the first time in memory I've not gotten a response from a researcher.

So I don't know if books in the home makes kids smarter, more educated or even motivated to finish college.  I do know book claims have turned at least one parent into a more careful reader.  Cheers.  Happy reading.

If you feel like making yourself poorer and possibly smarter, buy the study and let me know if it measured actual reading:

M.D.R. Evans, Jonathan Kelley, Joanna Sikora, Donald J. Treiman. Family scholarly culture and educational success: Books and schooling in 27 nations. Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, 2010; DOI: 10.1016/j.rssm.2010.01.002


Chip said...

The question of whether the books are being read seems less urgent than isolating the behavior-genetic component. Are you aware of how the "books in the home" claim fares in properly designed twin or adoption studies?

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Hey Chip, come on, are you a scientist? Anyhow, as you probably know some of the twin/adoption studies have looked at educational attainment but not sure if any looked at reading or books per se. I assume you're talking about the behavioral and genetic components of educational achievement and possibly intelligence?

Great topic, huge topic. The general consensus seems to be parental/environmental influences(non-genetic so to speak, it's complicated now, right?) including likely books in home, good schools, high quality preschool impact children in less nurturing/lower SES homes to a far greater degree than other children.

Your thoughts?

Chip said...

My understanding is that the consensus you reference comes with an asterisk -- that the impact of many observed environmental/nurtural benefits is of shorter duration than originally posited, with returns diminishing prpfopundly as kids reach adulthood. At least this seems to be the conclusion of several the long-term behavior-genetic studies to date.

There's a book by David C. Rowe called "The Limits of Family Influence" that summarizes a lot of the relevant genetically-controlled research and argues that parental effects are generally negligible. However, I can't remember whether Rowe (or the more popular gadfly, Judith Rich Harris) specifically addresses the "books in the home" business. I'll do some digging.

My cynical but educated guess is that there's not much lasting independent effect, regardless of whether kids are read to or just grow up in a book-rich environments.

Chip said...

Erratum: "prpfopundly" should read "profoundly." Not sure how that happened.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Yes, great point. The so-called influence of parents and other "environmental" factors seem to diminish over time, especially in terms of intelligence.

I read Judith Rich Harris' book, she makes a good case but then I always wonder about the immeasurable influence of parents and their decisions, conscious and otherwise. Some academic psych friends and I were talking about parenting recently, in fact, this very issue (the parental effect)and one made the case for subtle and lasting parental effects from choosing neighborhood, schools, extracirricular activities, diet, etc, ones that are difficult to quantify and very hard to measure over a lifetime. Large studies tend to collect general outcomes, be it on education, health, mental health, career choices so it's hard to detect more nuanced influences too.

The big adoption/identical twins separated at birth database, too bad we can't use it to answer all these questions. Those people are pretty old by now but wouldn't it be interesting if we could go back and do those studies with genetic testing and today's variables of interest. If only we had a large group of identical twins raised apart today...

Then of course there's the issue of epigentics, essentially environment shaping the expression of genes, like the role of stress, diet or maternal affection. So these effects appear to be highly genetic in origin (i.e. cancer risk, obesity, etc) but also stem from environment.

It's complicated, no? So yes in the grand scheme of life and its vast greyness, books in the home probably hold some kind of influence over a child's educational path but to what extent and how far into the future, who knows. I look forward to hearing about your digging.

Chip said...

I do think it's an open question, and far more nuanced than a toggle switch.

And yes, the Rowe/Harris theory is stronger where discrete temperamental and mental traits are concerned. Parents have a big influence, for example, on the TYPE of religion their children may embrace, even if they have little influence over whether or not their children will grow up to be particularly religious people.

Anonymous said...

Google's found the paper on someone's website:

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Good diggin,Anony. Thanks will take a look after I figure out how to get my old template back here. Messed up the site, hopefully read the article yet? Was there a measure of actual reading?

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Okay just skimmed it. No the study did not mention actual reading behavior, just used "book ownership" as a proxy for commitment to education. Not quite the same now, is it? Then unfortunately the authors go on to dicuss owning more books as more "bang for the buck" and worse, actual speak of "effects" and "impact" of books in home. Uggh. Just as I suspected....but thanks!

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Hey Anony, how you happen upon this old post? Just curious.