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Books in the Home Are Strongly Linked to Academic Achievement

• May 27, 2014 • 4:00 AM

(Photo: BarracudaDesigns/Shutterstock)

Test scores from 42 nations provide evidence of the benefits of having a home library.

With the school year ending and report cards being issued, plenty of parents are no doubt wondering what they can do to boost their children’s academic performance. Newly published research suggests there is a simple and effective answer: Build up your home library.

“We find that books in the home have a positive payoff in improved test scores throughout the world,” writes a research team led by University of Nevada-Reno sociologist Mariah Evans. “The relationship is strong, clear, and statistically significant in every one of the 42 nations (we studied).”

Evans made this same point in a 2010 study, which found “home library size has a very substantial effect on educational attainment.” Her new research confirms that conclusion using data from even a larger number of nations—42, rather than the 27 in the earlier report.

It also rebuts critics who contend that having books in the home “merely signals children’s elite status to gatekeepers, who then grant them unjust advantages.” To the contrary, Evans and her colleagues find books “especially benefit children from disadvantaged families.”

“Regardless of how many books the family already has, each addition to the home library helps children do better (on the standard test).”

“They enhance the academic performance of children from families as all educational and occupation levels,” the researchers write, “but the enhancement is greater for families with little education and low-status occupations.”

Evans and colleagues Jonathan Kelley and Joanna Sikora examined data from the Program for International Student Assessment, a project of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Academic achievement of participating students (most of whom were 15 years old at the time of the study) was determined by a test that the researchers describe as “carefully designed, comprehensive, structured to minimize class and ethnic bias, and anonymously graded.”

Data was also collected on family demographics, as well as the number of books in the student’s family home. (There was no information available on the specific types of volumes.)

The results were unambiguous: “Regardless of how many books the family already has, each addition to the home library helps children do better (on the standard test),” Evans and her colleagues report.

This held true even after parents’ occupations and education level and family wealth were taken into account. What’s more, the effect was consistently found in both rich and poor nations; in countries with economic systems that lead toward capitalism and socialism; and “in Asia as well as Europe and the Americas,” they add.

Within nations, “The gains are not equally great across the entire cultural hierarchy,” the researchers write. “They are larger at the bottom, far below elite level. Each additional book has a greater impact on the performance of someone who only has a small home library than it does on the performance of someone from a home overflowing with books. The second book and the third book have much greater impacts than the 102nd or 103rd.”

Still, that 100th (or 500th) volume says something important about the household environment.

“A home with books as an integral part of the way of life encourages children to read for pleasure and encourages discussion among family members about what they have read,” Evans and her colleagues write, “thereby providing children with information, vocabulary, imaginative richness, wide horizons, and skills for discovery and play.”

They concede that their research leaves something of a chicken-and-egg question: Are books in the home merely an indication of that sort of “scholarly culture,” or does their presence create an intellectually stimulating family environment?

While the answer isn’t clear, the researchers point to recent research suggesting that “books themselves do matter.”

“If so, a strong policy recommendation in favor of book drives is justified,” they conclude, adding that providing children’s books to young mothers may be a very good idea.

Being read to, reading for yourself, discussing what you’ve read—that’s the sort of positive spiral that can lead to greater academic achievement years down the line. The Cat in the Hat may turn out to be the catalyst between the covers.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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