Raising Readers: The Tremendous Potential of Families

Recent research into human brain development is proving that parents truly
are their children’s first teachers. What parents do, or don’t do,
has a lasting impact on their child’s reading skill and literacy. For
example, there is considerable evidence of a relationship between reading
regularly to a child and that child’s later reading achievement (National
Research Council, 1998).

But many parents are not yet making the most of simple, vital opportunities
to stimulate full and healthy child development in the early years, and by
extension, good reading readiness. As U.S. Education Secretary Richard W. Riley
has said, “If every child were read to daily from infancy, it would
revolutionize education in this country!”

Brain Development and Reading

Children develop much of their capacity for learning in the first three
years of life, when their brains grow to 90 percent of their eventual adult
weight (Karoly et al., 1998). A child’s intelligence, so long as it falls
within a normal range, does not determine the ease with which the
child will learn to read. Rather, as children grow and experience the world,
new neural connections are made. This orderly and individualized process,
varying from child to child, makes reading possible.

As parents talk, sing, and read to children, the children’s brain
cells are literally turned on (Shore, 1997). Existing links among brain cells
are strengthened and new cells and links are formed. That is why infants’
and toddlers’ health and nutrition, along with good functioning of the
senses, are so important. The opportunity for creating the foundation for
reading begins in the earliest years. Moreover, many pediatricians now believe
that a child who has never held a book or listened to a story is not a fully
healthy child (Klass, 1998).

Given the course of brain development, it is not surprising that young
children who are exposed to certain experiences usually prove to be good
readers later. Just as a child develops language skills long before being able
to speak, the child also develops literacy skills long before being able to
read (National Research Council, 1998).

How Parents Help

By cooing, singing lullabies, or reading aloud to a baby, toddler, or
preschooler, parents stimulate their children’s developing minds and help
build a base for literacy skills. Counting, number concepts, letter names and
shapes, associating sounds with letters, interest in reading, and cooperation
with other children are all relevant to learning to read (Wells, 1985).

Researchers studying high school seniors found early educational
experiences—such as learning nursery rhymes, watching Sesame
, playing word and number games, and being read to—are all good
predictors of later reading ability (Hanson et al., 1987).

Positive parental attitudes toward literacy can also help children become
more successful readers (Baker et al., 1995). Enthusiasm about books and
reading can be shared between a parent and child and deepen the child’s
interest in learning to read (Snow & Tabors, 1996). Children who learn from
parents that reading is fun may be more likely to sustain efforts to learn to
read when the going gets tough (National Research Council, 1998). Some experts
believe that parental emphasis on reading as entertainment, rather than as a
skill, develops a more positive attitude toward reading in children (Baker et
al., 1997).

Wise parents understand that play is the work of children. Parents can use
the arts to help develop early language skills, from the first lullaby to
dramatization of a favorite story (Council of Chief State School Officers,
1998). Dramatic play can develop vocabulary, concepts and creativity, all part
of pre-literacy skill building. Music and other language-rich creative arts can
stimulate a young child’s language and literacy development through
one-on-one interaction with a caring adult.

Doctors Prescribe Reading

Reading aloud to young children is so critical that the American Academy of
Pediatrics recommends that doctors prescribe reading activities along with
other advice given to parents at regular check-ups.

Dr. Perri Klass, Medical Director of Reach Out and Read, a national
pediatric literacy program involving hundreds of hospitals, clinics, and
independent practices, strongly agrees. “With confidence,” says Dr.
Klass, “I tell parents to read to their children, secure in the knowledge
that there’s good evidence that it will help their language development,
help them be ready to read when the time comes, and help parents and children
spend loving moments together.”

Yet studies show that many parents have not yet heard of this
“prescription for reading.” A national survey found that less than half (48 percent) of parents said they read or shared a
picture book daily with their children ages 1 to 3. Even fewer, 39 percent of
parents, read or looked at a picture book with their infants at least once a
day. Most alarmingly, one in six parents of an infant (16 percent) said they do
not read to their child at all (Young et al., 1996). Only 4 to 5 percent of
adults are unable to read a children’s book, although more may be
uncomfortable doing so (National Institute for Literacy, 1998).

The 1996 National Household Education Survey, however, found some positive
trends involving preschoolers. Fifty-seven percent of children ages 3 to 5 were
read to every day by a family member in 1996, up slightly from 53 percent in
1993. When oral storytelling is also considered, the percentage of children
exposed to narrative rose to 72 percent (up from 66 percent in 1993).
Nonetheless, the growth in the percentage of children being read to has occured
mostly in families least at risk—those at or above the poverty level,
those headed by two parents, and those in which the mother has some college

Differences Among Families

The single most significant predictor of children’s literacy is their
mother’s literacy level (Educational Testing Service,
1995). The more education a mother has, the more likely she is to read to her
child. Studies show that 77 percent of children whose mothers have a college
education were read to every day, while only 49 percent of children whose
mothers had a high school education were read to daily (National Household
Education Survey, 1996).

Similarly, children in poor families are less likely to be read to daily.
The 1996 National Household Education Survey found that 46 percent of children
in families in poverty were read to every day, compared with 61 percent of
children in families living above the poverty line.

Some researchers have found that the home literacy environment can be an
even stronger predictor of literacy and academic achievement than family
income. That home environment includes the literacy level of the parents, the
parents’ educational achievement, and the availability of reading
materials, among other factors (Dickinson, 1991).

While the overall economic status of the family has a great impact on
whether families read to children, the employment status of the mother does
not. The 1996 National Household Education Survey found little difference
between mothers who work more than 35 hours a week and those who work less than
that or are not employed. In families with mothers who worked full time, 54
percent of children were read to daily. When the mother worked part time, or
was not employed, 59 percent of the children were read to daily.

In contrast, big differences are seen between dual-parent and single-parent
households, according to a recent study by the University of Michigan’s
Institute for Social Research. Researchers found that parents in
“traditional” families with a working father and an at-home mother
spent an average of 22 hours a week directly engaged with their children under
age 13. That was slightly more than the 19 hours spent by parents in

dual-income families and more than double the 9 hours spent by single mothers
(Hofferth, 1998). The National Household Education Survey found that 61 percent
of preschoolers in two-parent households, vs. 46 percent in households with one
parent or no parents, were read to daily.

Differences were also seen in the National Household Education Survey among
racial and ethnic groups. Sixty-four percent of White families reported reading
every day to children ages 3 to 5, compared with 44 percent of Black families
and 39 percent of Hispanic families.

The Value of Words

Research demonstrates that the size of a young child’s vocabulary is a
strong predictor of reading—preschoolers with large vocabularies tend to
become proficient readers (National Research Council, 1998). Children’s
vocabulary can be greatly enhanced by talking and reading with parents. In
fact, the vocabulary of the average children’s book is greater than that
found on prime-time television (Hayes & Ahrens, 1988).

Children from lower-income families are at greater risk of having smaller
vocabularies than other children. One study of the actual vocabulary of
first-graders found that those from high-income families had double
the vocabulary of those from lower-income families (Graves & Slater, 1987).

None of these statistics should be used to blame parents. Rather,
we should use evidence of what works to rally and support all families to take
full advantage of their tremendous opportunity to prepare their children for
reading success.

Given what we know about brain development, it is clear that parents should
not leave to schools alone the important tasks of language and literacy
development. We must do more to enable and encourage parents to talk with their
children and invest 30 minutes daily for reading. When parents are unable,
grandparents, neighbors, babysitters, siblings, and other adults should step in
to serve as the child’s designated reader for the day. It is an experience
that children will remember for a lifetime, and one that will form the
foundation for all later learning.

Access to Books

Some experts believe that for America’s poorest children, the biggest
obstacle to literacy is the scarcity of books and appropriate reading material
(Needlman et al., 1991).

In many homes, particularly those with adult non-readers, there simply
aren’t any books, magazines, or newspapers appropriate for young children.

Yet, studies show that parents who are given books and “prescriptions
for reading” by their children’s pediatricians are four times more likely to read and share books with their young children

(Needlman et al., 1991). Mothers receiving welfare are eight times more likely to read to their children when provided with books
and encouragement (Needlman et al., 1991).

The NAEP 1998 Reading Report Card found that students with higher reading
scores were more likely to report four types of reading materials in their
homes—encyclopedias, magazines, newspapers, and at least 25 books.

Borrowing Books

Of course, books are available at public libraries, but this resource is
underutilized—only 37 percent of 3- to 5-year-olds visit a library at
least once a month (National Education Goals Panel, 1997). Transportation and
access can be obstacles for some families. Parents who are unfamiliar with
libraries may be unaware that books can be borrowed for free and that
librarians can help them select books that are age-appropriate. Librarians also
can direct parents with low literacy skills toward picture books and books on
tape, also appealing to children who are struggling with reading. Many
libraries offer reading support and story hours for families.

Once again, the parent’s education level is significant, though even
among the highly educated, library participation is not high. The National
Education Goals Panel found that about half of the children of college
graduates make monthly trips to the library, compared with less than one-sixth
of children whose parents never completed high school.

Access to quality reading materials should continue throughout a
child’s school years. But a 1996 survey found that average book spending
for school libraries had frozen in place. Worse, 36 percent of school
librarians reported having less money for books than the year before
(Miller & Shontz, 1997). In 1998, cash-strapped schools in Seattle found
their lack of contemporary titles to be such a deterrent to student reading
that a citywide campaign was launched to replenish school libraries. The state
of California is spending more than $150 million in 1999 to restock school
library shelves with new titles (Los Angeles Times, 1999).

Choosing Books over Television

A powerful barrier to raising readers sits in the living rooms or bedrooms
of most American homes. Children of all ages watch as much television in one
day as they read for fun in an entire week, according to a 1998 report of the
University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. Overall, children
under age 13 spend 90 minutes a day in front of the TV—down from two hours
in 1981, but still one-quarter of their free time.

Even the littlest viewers are hooked. Children ages 3 to 5 spend an average
of 13 hours and 28 minutes a week watching TV, almost as much as the 13 hours
and 36 minutes that 9- to 12-year-olds watch TV weekly (Hofferth, 1998).

The youngest children spend the most time reading at home, but it is only a
paltry one hour and 25 minutes a week. The reading habit actually
declines among children between ages 6 and 12, who spend roughly 10
minutes less per week with books at home. Girls spend about 11 minutes per day
reading, while boys spend 10 minutes. Reading rates did not differ on weekdays
or weekends (Hofferth, 1998).

Children of older parents are more likely to read than are children of
younger parents. Children of single parents spend less time reading than do
children in two-parent households. Children with two working parents watch less
television than “traditional” families with a male breadwinner and a
mother at home. Children of better-educated parents watch less TV and read more
often for pleasure. Kids with more siblings watch more TV than those in small
families (Hofferth, 1998).

The imbalance between reading and television has a significant effect on
academic results, the Michigan researchers found. Every hour of weekly reading
translated into a half-point increase on test scores, while each hour
of TV watching corresponded with a tenth of a point drop in scores
(Hofferth, 1998).

A Hopeful Trend

There are reasons to be hopeful in 1999. The NAEP 1998 Reading Report Card
found fewer students were watching excessive amounts of television compared
with 1994, and more fourth- and twelfth-graders were watching a minimal
amount—one hour or less per day—compared with 1992. In all three
grades, students who reported watching three or fewer hours of television each
day had higher average reading scores, and those who watched six hours or more
had the lowest average scores. The same report also found that fourth-graders
who were given time daily to read books of their own choosing had the
highest average scores.

Parents cannot assume that schoolwork makes up for too much TV. With
in-class assignments and homework, many students report reading 10 pages or
fewer each day—43 percent of fourth- graders, 57 percent of eighth-graders
and 56 percent of twelfth-graders (NAEP 1998 Reading Report Card). On a
positive note, more eighth- and twelfth-graders report reading 11 or more pages
per day than in recent years.

When children are plugged into television instead of reading books, they
are not developing the key literacy skills that will prepare them for school
and help them learn. While there are some educational programs, most notably on
public television, they are underutilized. Parents must be motivated to choose
those programs more often.

The Value of Parents

Parents serve both as teachers and role models in reading (National

Research Council, 1998). Adults pass on to children their own expectations
about education and achievement, both positive and negative (Fingeret, 1990).
Parents who value reading are more likely to turn off the television, visit the
library, and give books as gifts. But adults who rarely read books or
newspapers themselves may be less likely to read to their own children
(Fletcher & Lyon, 1998). Some parents with limited English proficiency may
be reluctant to read aloud in their native language, out of concern that this
would impede their children’s English acquisition.

Few parents reach out for help from experts, either due to embarrassment,
lack of access, or lack of time. Only 12 percent of parents of 3- to
5-year-olds attended a parenting class in 1996, and only 11 percent had taken
part in a parental support group (National Education Goals Panel, 1997). It is
a great national challenge to reach parents with literacy information and
support, to better enable them to raise a family of readers.

Raising Readers: Action Steps for Parents