May 3, 2018
Cross-file this under “Duh” and “Yay”: Kids who read learn more things
by Susan Rella
You better be sitting down, because we’re about to drop some intense knowledge on you. A brand-new study from New York University shows a direct link between—are you ready?—children’s proximity to books and their opportunities for learning. Also, water is wet.
OK, this is something of an oversimplification. There are somereally interesting takeaways from this study, conducted by the NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. And to be fair, it doesn’t look like the research was aiming to be revolutionary. Rather, it’s solidifying what all rational, nose-breathing, non-neckbeards have been able to intuit for a long time: Access to books, and to adults who instill the importance of reading, is a key determinant of a child’s academic opportunities.
Drilling down a bit more: even if a youngster loves books, if they can’t readily acquire age-appropriate reading material, then their educational aspirations could very easily be stymied, despite any innate love of learning. Take it from Susan B. Neuman, the lead author of the study, a well-known literacy researcher, and a professor of childhood and literacy education at NYU Steinhardt, who is quoted in the press release:
“Both physical and psychological proximity to books matter when it comes to children’s early literacy skills. Children need access to books in their neighborhoods, as well as adults who create an environment that inspires reading.”
Published in the journal Urban Education, the study looks at the benefits of a community-wide effort to boost access to books in urban areas identified as “book deserts” — communities with little access to books. They installed book vending machines (!) in four low-income neighborhoods throughout Detroit and Washington, D.C., dispensing free (!) children’s books during the summer. (Sidenote: Why’d they pick the summer for this project? That seems like a time when kids might not have the same access to reading materials as they have during the school year) The free books were sorted by age range, and included fictional and nonfictional works, many on multicultural themes. The selection changed every two weeks, encouraging readers to return for something new. And multiple selections could be made during the same visit. The study also tracked whether children visited alone, with a parent or guardian, or with a teacher.
The results were pretty heartening: more than 64,000 books were distributed over eight weeks, with 26,200 to unique users, and—cooler still—38,235 to return users. Approximately sixty percent of passersby took advantage of the vending machines. The study also found that parents and grandparents played a big role in encouraging children to select books.
The statistic that really sticks out, though, is this: the children who visited the machines with a parent or guardian and then came back with a teacher had a noticeable gain in their school readiness skills once school resumed in the fall. This speaks eloquently to the importance of treating reading as a communal activity. These students were also able to recognize more book titles than their classmates, which according to the report suggests a greater exposure to books overall. That double-whammy of educator and guardian, both taking an interest in the child’s reading, really seems to have made an impact.
But you know who didn’t pick up books? People—grown-ups and kids alike—who admitted to having a lack of interest in reading. And that’s an important point to consider, not to mention a distressing one. Neuman’s study has shown that children who enjoy reading will absolutely benefit from more available reading materials in their neighborhoods, and that adults who care about their children’s literacy and education should embrace their role as reading advocates. And if a non-reader is doing errands and free books in a magical shiny vending machine literally follow them home, this study suggests, the sad truth is that they still won’t crack open that spine. And if free books dispensed freely right around the corner from your house, for free, still won’t get you to read … will anything?
Susan Rella is the managing editor at Melville House, and a former bookseller.