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New Study: A library in your home has a powerful effect on your children

Brace yourselves. This might shock you so much I may have needed to give a trigger warning. But here goes.

A new study entitled “Scholarly culture: How books in adolescence enhance adult literacy, numeracy and technology skills in 31 societies.” suggests if you surround your kid with books, they’ll be smarter. I know. A total shocker, right?  The paper estimates that the average number of books in U.S. households is about 114, which the authors suggest results in a positive boost in literacy and mathematical competency.

The paper’s authors studied 160,000 adults between 2011 and 2015 and found that just having 80 or more books in a home results in adults with significantly higher levels of literacy, numeracy, and information communication technology (ICT) skills. The paper finds, “Growing up with home libraries boosts adult skills in these areas beyond the benefits accrued from parental education or own educational or occupational attainment.”

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As much as we all may have sort have assumed that giving kids access to a lot of books to read would have a good effect on their ability to read, the enhanced math skills was honest a little surprising to me, but what was more surprising? The impact that the authors of the study found was actually quite substantial; a kid who grows up with a lot of books could be more competent in those fields than a kid with a four year degree who didn’t have many at all.

The effect was found to be powerful in: Children from such homes who ended up attaining just a high-school-level education “become as literate, numerate and technologically apt in adulthood as university graduates who grew up with only a few books.”

In other words, give your kids access to the knowledge, and they can help attain some of it themselves, without having to spend time in a lecture hall. Not that the university or college experience or educational curriculum is something to be dismissed because of this study. It shouldn’t be ignored how much an impact just giving your kids the chance to read a lot means, but you still have to get them to actually read the books they have.

Now, before you go buy a metric ton of books, thinking that if you give your child a million to choose from they’ll become the smartest person in the world, slow your roll a little. There is an outer threshold, according to the study, above which you start to get diminishing returns.

…the greatest gains in adult literacy, numeracy, and ICT skills when a home had from 80 to 350 books — no additional gains were seen above that number.

The study didn’t just quantify how many books encourage your kid to be a better reader or mathematician. The authors wanted know why it works. Why do kids with access to more books end up being better at math at reading? Basically — it starts you with a basic foundation of these core practices, and it builds habits that help you continue to educate yourself throughout your life.

“Early exposure to books in [the] parental home matters because books are an integral part of routines and practices that enhance lifelong cognitive competencies.” Moreover, “These competencies facilitate educational and occupational attainment, but they also lay a foundation for life-long routine activities that enhance literacy and numeracy.”

The study seemed to try and answer the question of what effect digital content is having on print books, and even addressed to some extent if digital media versus print media made any real difference to the acquiring of math or reading skills.

“For the time being, however, the perception that social practice of print book consumption is passé is premature.” The reason for this is that large digital libraries, for now at least, parallel large paper ones: “…home library size is positively related to higher levels of digital literacy so, the evidence suggests that for some time to come, engagement with material objects of scholarly culture in parental homes, i.e. books, will continue to confer significant benefits for adult ICT competencies.”

As we move more and more to a primarily digital experience in most our media, it’s good to know that at least one study shows that there isn’t a big difference in terms of increasing someone’s literacy or numeracy.

The fact is that, as someone at Big Think put it, it’s still a hell of a lot cheaper to buy a ton of books than to send a kid to college. Not every family can get their kid to a university without major financial burdens or help, but books themselves can help mitigate some of those inequities of opportunity.

The study’s conclusions should be heartening to families around the world unable to provide higher education for their children. Having books around the house can substantially level the playing field in reading and math skills even without the expense of post-secondary time in the classroom.

And if you can send your kid to college, giving them a ton of books is only going to help their academic fundamentals down the line.

For those who can send their kids to college, the study suggests that raising a child in a bookish atmosphere may be a prerequisite to deriving the full benefit of a college education, and, of course, it provides a child with an even greater chance of success in adulthood.

I don’t know if this is officially “no duh” territory or not, because I thought it’s been pretty much true forever that reading makes kids smarter, but it is nice to have data to back that up now. It might help encourage parents to take the notion more seriously, and in a generation we’d see big gains with our students in those areas.

That is, if you care about a smart society. Maybe you don’t. You do you.


Writer/comedian James Schlarmann is the founder of The Political Garbage Chute and his work has been featured on The Huffington Post. You can follow James on Facebook and Instagram, but not Twitter because he has a potty mouth.

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