A home library can have a powerful effect on children

A new study finds that simply growing up in a home with enough books increases adult literacy and math prowess.

([John Jones])
  • A child growing up in a home with at least 80 books will have greater literacy and numeracy in adulthood.
  • A home library can promote reading and math skills more than college alone can.
  • Growing up in a pro-learning home leads to a lifetime of knowledge-seeking.

The average number of books in a U.S. household is 114, according to a just-published paper called "Scholarly culture: How books in adolescence enhance adult literacy, numeracy and technology skills in 31 societies." 114 is a good number. 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."

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."

It’s not quite the more books the better

(Flicker user [Jenny])

The study, led by Dr. Joanna Sikora of Australian National University, found 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. Nonetheless, what constitutes a large library depends on where you are. Scandinavian families had the biggest collections: 14% of Norwegians and 13% of Swedes had 500+ books in their homes home. Only a handful of countries, though, own fewer than 80 books on average: Chile, Greece, Italy, Singapore, and Turkey.

The effect of digital media

A reasonable question to ask would be about the effect of the rise in digital books. The study downplays the impact of this trend on its findings, saying, "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."

Why does living with a home library help?

(Robby Berman)

The study suggests that there are two factors at play here. First is the impact of growing up in a pro-knowledge/learning social environment, since "adolescent exposure to books is an integral part of social practices that foster long term cognitive competencies." Second, reading often helps individuals develop related skills, and, as the study says, "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."

Even 80 books costs a lot less than a year of tuition

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Since the report found that "university graduates who grew up with hardly any books around them had roughly average literacy levels," it stands to reason that having books around the house is an excellent investment in a child's future. The authors write, "So, literacy-wise, bookish adolescence makes for a good deal of educational advantage." When it comes to numeracy, a substantive home library's benefits holds true, as "its impacts are equivalent to [having] additional years of education."

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.

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.

A still from the film "We Became Fragments" by Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller, part of the Global Oneness Project library.

Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
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It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

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Surprising Science
  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
  • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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