Friday, May 30, 2008

Reading to your children makes no difference

Less than 1 in 2 parents read to their children says the team behind the ‘National Year of Reading’. Does this ‘Year of…’ or ‘Week for..’ or ‘Day of…’ actually work, or is it just a scam for some well paid campaigners and ad agencies to make some money? I only ever seem to be aware of them after they’ve happened.

Uncomfortable truths
Coming back to reading to your children, it’s actually its 49%, which seemed quite high to me. I was never read to as a child and have never read to my children but we’re all avid readers. Honor Wilson-Fletcher (why do they always have such unlikely and posh names?) tells us that it is unequivocally good for us. But their report uncovers some other uncomfortable truths; that most parents put on ‘posh’ vices for heroes and ‘working class’ voices for villains. More worrying is the fact that CS Lewis’s ‘Lion, Witch and Wardrobe’ is one of the most popular reads – according to Tolkein a ‘blatant and naïve’ piece of fundamentalist Christian propaganda (the book is much loved by America fundamentalists).

Does reading to your child make any educational difference?
The study relies on a YouGov survey of 2,200 parents, and is all a bit hokey. A better source for data is the ECLS study from the US, a massive study on a cross-section of 20,000 children across the US. The results are wonderfully unpacked in Steve Levitt’s marvelous ‘Freakonomics’. Interestingly, having lots of books in your home is highly correlated with educational attainment, but ‘parents reading to their children’ is NOT. I never did feel guilty about not reading Narnia to my kids, as I was always keen that they did more active play and reading on their own.


Anonymous said...

But Donald, what happened before your children could read for themselves? Didn't you read to them then?

I don't think it matters whether there's a correlation between being read to and educational achievement. To my mind, other good things come out of reading to your child - it 's a genuine shared pleasure, for a start, an experience that both of you enjoy. And tbh, when my daughter was two or three, there weren't a whole load of things that we both liked doing.

And I think that for children, being read to awakens their interest in story-telling , but that's just personal observation rather than based on evidence. Actually, I think it's just a good thing in itself - doesn't need to have a greater purpose.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia Ora Donald

Your interesting point on the bogus ideas about the benefits of reading to children caught my attention. I have 6 children and I've anecdotal tales to tell about them all as far as books are concerned.

I read to all my chlidren so I can't say if not reading makes any difference. But I do know that as a father it made a difference to me. They talk about bonding. Well, I think I know what all about the benefits of that.

Though the reading might be quite incidental to my children's subsequent education (though I can't say one thing or the other) the bonding that took place between me and them is implicit.

My youngest daughter had a fascination for books since she was able to crawl. She was sitting holding a book and turning its pages long before she could walk, and would do this frequently with my little precious poetry books that she picked off the bottom shelf in the hall. She never tore a page, so I just left her to it.

There were no pictures in these books and she often held them upside down. But she never lost her fascination for books. Now at the age of 14 she has read books that I've never read. Among them are all the Harry Potter books and, believe it or not, the complete Lord of the Rings trilogy! She has no illusions about the films though she's a great fan of Legolas.

I would hesitate to suggest that she could have picked up her fascination for books even if I never owned a book and never showed her one. But that would be sheer speculation.

Ka kite

Donald Clark said...

I'm ot sayig do't read to your children. My point was that the 'read to your kids' lobby make overstated claims on its educational benefits. They do make strong claims on educational benefits.

My second point was that parents reinforce stereotypes when they 'voice' such books, based on their own class prejudices.

My third point was the dodgy material such as 'Narnia', that it read to such children.

I have nothing against reading to your child, only the hubris surrounding its unproven benefits. If it helps you 'bond' fine - but there are loads of other ways to bond. I have no doubt that the bond between parents and children is just as strong, if not stronger, in non-literate societies.

And on the point of teaching someone to read - this is not done by simply reading to them. I was relaxed about forcing my kids to read before they went to school - I was much keener on them playing at that age and not being force-fed literature.

Anonymous said...

There may be other benefits to reading to children, though, which aren't reflected in educational success.

Anonymous said...

Donald... you shouldn't trust educational research anyway .... we always know in advance that it will produce no significant results.

I am currently spending a lot of time reading reading research and there is a lo of contradiction. The only common message is immerse your child in language,

If that means having fun together with books then that sounds good to me.

My two grown up offspring are still intelligent aetheists even though we had communal readings of TLWAW etc. Expose your your young to many ideas and discuss them. Without accessing Christian mythology how can you expect them to understand western art?

Donald Clark said...

"you shouldn't trust educational research anyway .... we always know in advance that it will produce no significant results"

Sorry, this is precisely the problem in education - that it ignores the research and is far too keen on adopting faddish and non-empirical theories.

I also feel that I have a reasonable grasp and appreciation of Western Art and its Christian tradition without reading CS Lewis.

Anonymous said...

I have read to my kids and this entry reminded me I am not doing it now. Am feeling guilty about this. Reading does create interest in a child. Since I was with my kids in their formative years, the reason I can think is that a child feels that he or she is a part of the parent. Doing these activities is fun and since the child connects with the parent it is an easy flow. My kids(they are seven years apart)have wonderful reading habit. Elder one got more attention and is an avid reader. Younger one, I am unable to give that kind of time as I work now. Thanks, I might be making a conscious effort now. I know that this post was about this not being essential but brought back what I was forgetting.

Anonymous said...

You know, reading to my sons may or may not have made any difference to their academic achievement, but I wouldn't have traded in those daily, final moments of sleepy intimacy for anything in the world. I didn't read to them to make them clever. I read to them because I loved being with them, because I loved discovering new stories with them and watching them discover stories that were familiar to me. Many of the moments we recount to one another in our trips down memory lane relate to story times we shared with them.

Anonymous said...


I've not read Freakonomics, but your post made me delve into the ECLS web site.

Are you saying that this conclusion

"Other factors were related to children’s reading skills and knowledge at the start of kindergarten and to their reading achievement at the end of kindergarten and 1st grade. At the beginning of kindergarten, children’s reading skills and knowledge were related to their home literacy environment. Children from a “literacy-rich” home environment (i.e., those who are read to, sung to, and told stories to more frequently and those who have more children’s books, records/audiotapes/CDs in the home) demonstrated higher reading knowledge and skills than other children. This relationship existed whether their families’ income was above or below the federal poverty threshold."

taken from here is flawed, and if yes, what is the flaw?


Donald Clark said...

Levitt and Dubner did their own regression analysis to identify and separate out 16 specific variables.

A child with at least 50 kids' books in his home, for instance, scores roughly 5 percentile points higher than a child with no books, and a child with 100 books scores another 5 percentile points higher than a child with 50 books. Most people would look at this correlation and draw the obvious cause-and-effect conclusion: A little boy named, say, Brandon has a lot of books in his home; Brandon does beautifully on his reading test; this must be because Brandon's parents read to him regularly.

But the ECLS data show no correlation between a child's test scores and how often his parents read to him. How can this be? Here is a sampling of other parental factors that matter and don't:

•Matters: The child has highly educated parents.

•Doesn't: The child regularly watches TV at home.

•Matters: The child's parents have high income.

•Doesn't: The child's mother didn't work between birth and kindergarten.

•Matters: The child's parents speak English in the home.

•Doesn't: The child's parents regularly take him to museums.

•Matters: The child's mother was 30 or older at time of the child's birth.

•Doesn't: The child attended Head Start.

•Matters: The child's parents are involved in the PTA.

•Doesn't: The child is regularly spanked at home.

Culture cramming may be a foundational belief of modern parenting but, according to the data, it doesn't improve early childhood test scores. Frequent museum visits would seem to be no more productive than trips to the grocery store. Watching TV, meanwhile, doesn't turn a child's brain into mush after all; nor does the presence of a home computer turn a child into Einstein.

Now, back to the original riddle: How can it be that a child with a lot of books in her home does well at school even if she never reads them? Because parents who buy a lot of children's books tend to be smart and well-educated to begin with — and they pass on their smarts and work ethic to their kids. (This theory is supported by the fact that the number of books in a home is just as strongly correlated with math scores as reading scores.) Or the books may suggest that these are parents who care a great deal about education and about their children in general, which results in an environment that rewards learning. Such parents may believe that a book is a talisman that leads to unfettered intelligence. But they are probably wrong. A book is, in fact, less a cause of intelligence than an indicator.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Tēnā koe Donald

I guess, perhaps, we should close the book on the subject.

Ka kite

Anonymous said...

There are many benefits to reading to your child, though they may be inflated by certain groups. All you're doing is throwing the baby out with the bath water, right?

By this logic we should not watch TV nor should we actively play outside since I can point to groups who see ill effects from TV watching and high rates of aggression and injury from active play.

The same can be said for the type of reading material or the voices used when reading. Is this a reason to simply abandon reading to your child?

What exactly do you suggest? Government intervention to ensure that the 'voices' used are appropriate? Who deems what that is? In fact, who says Narnia is really that bad? What's next, Harry Potter is forbidden? And no, that's not a joke, it's one of the most challenged books in its era.

It's a slippery slope in my opinion.

At the end of the day there is actual research (though not in the ever-trendy Freakonomics) that show the benefits of reading, and the benefits of reading to your child.

Your post speaks about not feeling guilty? Me thinks doth protest too much.

Anonymous said...

I was never read to as a child because I grew up in a war zone. I do not believe it has affected my intellectual abilities, but I really wish my parents had done it. I am currently a 4.0 college student who loves to read and learn almost anything. Some of my most innocent years were destroyed by that war and I never got to experience many wonderful things that we get to cherish as we get older. There is a bright side though: two days ago my girlfriend read to me in a book store. I as finally read to, it was wonderful.

Jesse said...

And on the point of teaching someone to read - this is not done by simply reading to them.

Mr. Clark, will all due respect you have no idea what you are talking about. Shame on you for influencing people to believe this.

Donald Clark said...

Jesse, with all due respect (always a worrying opening phrase),reading is a complex cognitive skill. It requires detailed instruction and practice. Simply reading to someone may interest someone in storytelling but it does not teach someone to read.

I wouldn't, without any evidence, accuse anyone of not knowing what they're talking about.' On this occasion, however, I feel duty bound to make an exception. You really don't know what you're talking about.