Monday, September 23, 2013

Parenting: The Importance of Reading to Young Children

PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) is an outfit sponsored by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). PISA provides comparative testing between nations every three years in math, reading, and science proficiency for fifteen-year-olds. It is this PISA test that is referred to when people claim that the students of the United States are merely average (mediocre, if you prefer) compared to the rest of the developed world.

PISA decided to add a survey for the parents of the students taking their test. This questionnaire would assess various parenting approaches and look for correlations between student performance and parental performance. The United States chose not to participate, but fourteen other countries did. The results are discussed here.

"The questionnaire was distributed in Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Korea, New Zealand and Portugal (which are OECD member countries) and in Croatia, Hong Kong-China, Lithuania, Macao-China, Panama and Qatar (which are not members of the OECD)"

Reading comprehension is the basis for education, both while in school and in later life. It is critical that children get off to a good start. Perversely, our education system is designed to exacerbate differences in performance in children, accelerating those most ready to proceed, and allowing the laggards to lag behind. According to PISA, there are a few rather simple things we can do to prepare our children for school. The most import thing is to read to our children in their preschool years.

" far the strongest relationship is between reading to a child during his/her early years and better reading performance when the child is 15. PISA found that....students whose parents read books to them as they entered primary school are more likely to have higher reading scores at age 15. The relationship is particularly strong in New Zealand and Germany, where students whose parents read to them in their early school years show higher scores on the PISA reading test – by 63 and 51 points, respectively – than students whose parents had not read to them. To put that in perspective, in PISA, 39 score points is the equivalent of one school year. That means that 15-year-olds whose parents had read to them when they were just starting school read at least as well as their peers one grade above them."

The differences persisted even when students and parents with similar socio-economic backgrounds were compared.

"But PISA results show that even among families with similar socio-economic backgrounds, reading books to young children is still strongly related to better performance when those children reach the age of 15. This association is particularly strong in New Zealand, where there was a 44-point difference in reading scores between those students whose parents read to them regularly when they were younger and those whose parents didn’t, Germany, where the difference was 29 points, and Qatar (27 points)."

If you intend to play word games with your children, you are advised to focus on stories, poems and songs, as opposed to alphabet games.

"PISA also found that parent-child activities that involve putting words into broader contexts, such as telling stories or singing songs, as compared with activities that isolate letters or words, such as playing with alphabet toys, help to instill an enjoyment of reading in children."

Maryanne Wolf provides an elegant explanation for why reading stories to children is helpful in developing reading skills in her book Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. Children are not born with any pre-wired reading skills. They have to be developed from existing sensory capabilities. Eventually they have to rewire their brain so that the recognition of sequences of letters as words is done subconsciously. This allows the proficient reader to concentrate on the meaning of the pattern of the words rather than on interpreting the individual words. This takes time and a lot of effort. She provides this perspective:

"....although it took our species roughly 2,000 years to make the cognitive breakthroughs necessary to learn to read with an alphabet, today our children have to reach those same insights about print in about 2,000 days."

PISA provides some additional suggestions of things parents can do that seem to help children perform as readers. One is to just spend time talking to your children about things in general; show interest in what they are reading or thinking.

"In general, 15-year-olds whose parents show an active interest in their lives and thoughts are more proficient in reading. As with parent-child activities when children are very young, some types of parental engagement with older children are more strongly associated with better reading proficiency than others. For example, talking with 15-year-olds is more beneficial than going to the library or to a bookstore with them. Students seem to benefit particularly from discussions with their parents about political or social issues."

Parents can also set a good example by demonstrating that reading can be a pleasant pastime.

"Children whose parents are more inclined to read and hold positive attitudes towards reading are better at reading than children whose parents do not share those positive attitudes. In all countries and economies assessed, the children whose parents do not think reading is a waste of time or who spend more time reading at home for enjoyment have significantly higher scores in reading."

Children are complex creatures and raising one from an infant to an adult can be a harrowing experience. Parents must wade through all sorts of often contradictory advice on how to deal with their young child. It is refreshing to come across information on how parents can do something beneficial that requires no complex thought, and is actually fun. The only training required is that you must be able to read a children’s book.

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