Unread Books at Home Still Spark Literacy Habits

We know that reading is good for children. And presumably for adults as well. Now, a new study suggests that just being around books has its benefits—even if you don’t make a point of reading them a lot. A team of researchers in Australia finds that growing up in a home with a sizable library enhances enhances literacy, number-sense, and even technological know-how in later life. You can read all about it in the journal Social Science Research. [Joanna Sikora, M.D.R. Evans and Jonathan Kelley, Scholarly culture: How books in adolescence enhance adult literacy, numeracy and technology skills in 31 societies]

The researchers were exploring the advantages of scholarly culture. In particular, they were interested in a curious observation that some call the ‘radiation effect.’

“Radiation effect is a situation where children grow up around books, but they don’t read books, but somehow books benefit them, even though they don’t read them as much as maybe their parents would like them to.”

Joanna Sikora, a sociologist at the Australian National University. She and her colleagues parsed data collected between 2011 and 2015 by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The survey assessed the literacy, numeracy, and technological competency of more than 160,000 adults from 31 different societies. And it included a question about how many books participants had in their homes during adolescence.

“What we were able to demonstrate was that people who grew up around books had better literacy, numeracy and digital problem-solving skills than people who had fewer books growing up but had similar education levels, similar jobs, and even similar adult habits in terms of reading or engaging in various numeracy-enhancing activities.”

In fact, teens who only made it through high school but were raised in a bookish environment fared as well in adulthood as college grads who grew up in a house bereft of books.

Now, how might mere exposure lead to intellectual enrichment?

“So if we grow up in a house, in a home where parents enjoy books, where books are given as birthday presents and cherished and valued, this is something that becomes a part of our identity and gives us this lifelong incentives to be literacy oriented, to always kind of steer towards books and read more than we would otherwise.”

So keep those shelves stacked with books. Your kids will not only be grateful, they’ll be more likely to be able to spell grateful correctly as well.

—Karen Hopkin

(The above text is a transcript of this podcast)

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