Books and Educational Attainment

by | Jun 1, 2018


Books matter.

A study from 2010 titled Family Scholarly Culture and Educational Success: Books and Schooling in 27 Nations concluded that there is a strong the correlation is between a child’s academic achievement and the number of books his or her parents own. In fact, the study showed that the difference between being raised in a bookless home compared to being raised in a home with a 500-book library has as great an effect on the level of education a child will attain as having parents who are barely literate (3 years of education) compared to having parents who have a university education (16+ years of education).

The study was conducted over 20 years, in 27 countries, and surveyed more than 70,000 people. Researchers found that children who grew up in a home with more than 500 books spent 3 years longer in school than children whose parents had only a few or no books. Also, a child whose parents have lots of books is nearly 20-percent more likely to finish college than a child whose parents only have a few or no books. Having books in the home is twice as important as the parental education level, and more important than whether a child was reared in China or the United States.  The number of books in the home was also more important than the home country’s GDP or the political system of the home country.

Similarly, another study also from 2010 titled The Economics of International Differences in Educational Achievement that studied the educational achievements of British children found “the difference in educational achievement between children of families with more than two bookcases of books and children of families with only very few books at home  is 1.15 standard deviations, or more than three times what students on average learn during a whole school year.”*

Does this make you want to run out and buy books for your kids or grandkids? Before doing so, you may want to read the rest of the IFOD below.

Note that the studies cited above found a correlation to the number of books in a home and the amount of education attained – NOT whether the books were actually read by the children or parents.  What to make of this?  The 2005 bestseller Freakanomics may shed some light on this.  In Freakanomics the authors cited research that found that having a lot of books in the home was highly correlated to higher test scores but, surprisingly, how often a child is read to in their early years by their parents had a very low correlation to higher test scores.  So, according to the data relating to what correlates to higher test scores:

Matters: The child has many books in his home.
Doesn’t: The child’s parents read to him every day.

What is the explanation for this?  The authors conjectured:  “Most parents who buy a lot of children’s books tend to be smart and well educated to begin with. (And they pass on their smarts and work ethic to their kids.) Or perhaps they care a great deal about education, and about their children in general. (Which means they create an environment that encourages and rewards learning.)  Such parents may believe that every children’s book is a talisman that leads to unfettered intelligence. But they are probably wrong. A book is in fact less a cause of intelligence than an indicator.”

Thus, what Steven Levitt of Freakanomics (and U. of Chicago) point is that the cause of the increased education achievement may not be the books themselves but rather having the genetics of a parent that would invest in a lot of books which is an interesting point and shows the issues with reading causation into a correlation.This is not to say that actually reading books is of no value and numerous studies have found that reading to and with children at an early age is important, it just may be more important to pick your parents well.

*quote from the study

1 Comment

  1. Projecting forward in time. We are probably not far removed from a time when no books will actually be kept in the home. That is, there will be no bookshelves needed. All the reading material will be stores and read from electronic sources. The implication from above is not to worry. Pay more attention to who your daddy is. Hmmm – not always easy to do. Also, I find that going to the book shelf and finding a book to read is a motivator to reading. I am not sure the electronic media will allow that to happen.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Subscribe To The IFOD

Get the Interesting Fact of the Day delivered twice a week. Plus, sign up today and get Chapter 2 of John's book The Uncertainty Solution to not only Think Better, but Live Better. Don't miss a single post!

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This
%d bloggers like this: