Hit The Books, Literally

Now that our children are back in school, how can we improve their chances of staying in school? What can we do for our youngsters that will keep them on track for those high-skill jobs that will require extensive education? The answer may be easier than you think. We can stack their odds by surrounding them with stacks of books.

Just to be clear, we’re talking books. Books. Bound volumes with words printed on the pages inside. Not Web sites, e-books, reading material, podcasts, or educational DVDs. Books.
Count the number of books in a child’s home and you can predict the number of years that child will stay in school. It turns out to be a stronger correlation than any other variable — including household income, the education of the child’s parents, the economic status of the neighborhood, the quality of the child’s school, or almost anything else.

According to a study published this June in the journal Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, children who grew up in homes with 500 or more books typically completed three more years of education than their peers. They surveyed 70,000 children in 27 nations. The results surprise us, but for one simple reason.

We’ve forgotten what it was like to be a child. We live our adult lives filled with symbols and metaphors and analogies, but none of that is possible until after we’ve learned what is literally true. There is no “school of hard knocks” until we understand that school is where people go to learn, and that it hurts to be knocked hard.

We look at books and see the ideas that are inside them. We value the ideas, not the paper and the binding and the cover. We’re lured by improved technology and efficiency. We marvel that the entire works of Shakespeare can be stored on our phones. We listen to audio books while we jog. We feel all warm knowing the Oxford English Dictionary is on our laptop, adding literally no weight to our hard drive. We can access more words every day than are housed in the Library of Congress. Each of these facts is truly amazing, and of very little use to a pre-schooler.

Young children are literalists. They see first — and for many years, only — the thing. Their favorite story is right there, on that shelf, next to that blue lamp. The story is in there, and it belongs to them. Nobody else has that same book, that same story, those same ideas. It’s right there where they left it when they opened it last. It’s captive and controlled by the child. It takes up space. It has mass. It could even fall on their head, teaching them that it hurts to be knocked hard.

A book represents a profound connection between ideas and ownership. That becomes part of a child’s identity. By the time children can describe what they’re thinking, their brains — and their minds — are mostly made up.

Many of us are foregoing books for more efficient or economical modes of reading material, but we haven’t stopped to consider how those choices might affect our children.
We may be imperiling our future without realizing it.

I grew up in a neighborhood where every family bought their own encyclopedia set. They were sold door-to-door, they were so popular. The upper class families had two cars and Encyclopedia Britannica. Middle class families had the World Book set. We were somewhere in between. Our World Book set came with an oversized atlas protruding from the back of its own custom-built bookcase. I don’t recall ever opening a volume except for class reports, but you couldn’t enter the den without passing that bookcase. It conveyed a value from my parents to my young mind that shaped part of me and so my future.

Now when people enter my house, what they see first are two cases: a staircase and a bookcase. It turns out both have helped me move up in life. It’s too bad we’re not making the case for books the way we once did.
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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com. He has volunteered for the past five years with Oregon’s S.M.A.R.T. (Start Making a Reader Today) program, which excites children about reading and gives them books to call their own. More information about S.M.A.R.T. is available at www.getsmartoregon.org.