Information, vocabulary, imaginative richness, and wide horizons aren’t just for kids!

Katie and Mirella holding their latest book box selections.

An Accella student will typically read ten or more books each year as part of their coursework. In addition, to reward them for their labors, they will frequently be invited to choose more books from curated, constantly-replenished collections that we maintain at our office (as Katie and Mirella have just done in the photo above). All of these books are theirs to keep permanently.

Our hope is that at least some of these books, especially the more sophisticated ones that they’ll select or be asked to read for class as they mature, will form the core of a personal library that will grow and evolve throughout their lives. The likelihood that the young people with whom we work will amass collections of books that are meaningful to them and to which they’ll later return, from time to time, likely depends a great deal on the attitudes towards books and reading that prevail in their homes right now.

As to why we feel that reading, widely and deeply, and amassing a large personal library are important, we could point to studies that, essentially, seem to indicate that reading makes you a better person (see, for example, For Better Social Skills, Scientists Recommend a Little Chekhov, which discusses the recent scientific paper by Comer Kidd and Castano, Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind, published early this month in the journal Science). If goodness for its own sake doesn’t grab you, then consider all of the ways, major and minor, that our social skills, or lack thereof, impact our ability to achieve our goals and, frankly, win at life.

At this point, a few parents reading this post may be patting themselves on the back. In their sons’ and daughters’ bedrooms, there are shelves overflowing with books, they make a point of taking them to a library so that they can borrow armfuls of new reading material frequently, or make sure that they have the chance to check out every book fair and sale that rears its head. These parents may have gone further and enrolled their little ones in programs like those that we offer, which emphasize reading and understanding what one reads. That’s wonderful, but what about the parents themselves? As it turns out, adults’ reading habits appear to matter a heck of a lot too.

Here’s a quote from an academic journal article (Family scholarly culture and educational success: Books and schooling in 27 nations by Mariah Evans, Jonathan Kelley, Joanna Sikora, and Donald J. Treiman) that describes a strong correlation between the number of books in a child’s home and the number of years of education that they will receive:

A home in which books are an integral part of the way of life will encourage children to read for pleasure, thereby providing them with information, vocabulary, imaginative richness, and wide horizons.

Evans et al.’s paper was published in 2010 in the journal Research in Social Stratification and Mobility. Paywalls are a pain. Fortunately, however, searching on the paper’s title currently turns up a postprint. You may want to pause and Google yourself up a copy right now.

In their analysis of their results, the authors state (references to tables and figures excised for the sake of readability):

Home library size has a very substantial effect on educational attainment, even adjusting for parents’ education, father’s occupational status, and other family background characteristics. 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 an otherwise similar home with few or no books. This is a large effect both absolutely and in comparison with other influences on education. (1) The difference between a bookless home and one with a 500-book library is as great as the difference between having parents who are barely literate (3 years of education) and having university educated parents (15 or 16 years of education). Thus, a home library is as important as parents’ education, the most important variable in the standard educational attainment model. (2) Moreover a home library is twice as important as father’s occupation: only 1.6 years of education separates children of farm laborers at the bottom of the hierarchy from professionals’ children at the top, all else equal. This is just half the 3.2-year home library gap.

Being reared in a home with five hundred books versus one containing no books has been found to have as great an impact on the number of years of education that a child will receive as whether the child’s parents are nearly illiterate or have attended university. The profession of the child’s father (whether he is a farm laborer or a holds a white-collar job) is half as important as having five hundred books at home.

How many moms and dads whose kids have no difficulty getting their hands on piles, stacks, or (teetering, ceiling-high) towers of books actually, themselves, read at home on a regular basis? The authors of the RiSSaM paper believe that the benefits accruing to children living in households with large numbers of books flow from kids observing their parents reading, understanding that reading is a worthwhile activity for grownups as well as for young people like themselves, and engaging their moms and dads in conversations about what they’re reading. Making sure that your children have access to plenty of books and that they read frequently is great, but it’s not necessarily enough.

You have to read too, your children need to see you with your noses buried in books, and you have got to make time to talk with them about what you, and they, are reading. Otherwise, you run the very real risk of inadvertently teaching your young ones that books are the equivalent of toys and that reading is, fundamentally, a childhood activity that will cease when they reach adulthood. They may infer that reading, beyond the bare minimum necessary to answer their teachers’ questions or achieve acceptable scores on exams, is a waste of time and find themselves falling further and further behind kids whose parents led by example and demonstrated the importance of reading. Actions speak louder than words.