How many books are on your shelves?

Quiz time.  Which of the following best predicts your child’s level of achievement at school and at work?

1.    Your level of education

2.    Your occupation

3.    The number of books you have in your house?

Believe it or not, the answer is 3. the number of books in your house.

In a study using data from 27 countries and no fewer than 58,944 people, the researchers focussed on how many books were in the homes of the participants when they were 14.  The team also collected data on other biographical aspects of the participant’s background such as their parent’s education and occupation as well as how long the participant had spent in formal education and what work they themselves performed.

And the results?  There was a strong relationship between the number of books in the house where they grew up and their later educational and career success.  Children who grew up in households which contained 500 books or more stayed in education on average three years longer than children who grew up in bookless households. The relationship between the size of the library of books was a better predictor than the parent’s own level of education or occupational status.  This was found to be true across rich and poor countries, communist and capitalist, and in North America, Africa, Asia and Europe.

So what are the implications of this for parents?  The good news is that regardless of their own level of education or nature of their work, parents can create an environment which fosters academic achievement and career success for their children.  Parents can help their children succeed in school beyond their own level of attainment.

But before you place a bulk order with Amazon and hope that’s university sorted for your little ones, it is worth considering a couple of points.  Firstly, the research team do not suggest it is the mere presence of the books in the house that make the difference, but that books are an indicator of what they call a “scholarly culture.”  The team used the library size as the key measure in the study as it has been found previously to be an accurate predictor of other factors such as the number of serious novels that the parents read, whether they use libraries and whether they visit galleries, museums, or attend the theatre or ballet.  If all that sounds impossibly middle class to you, I think the key is creating an environment where learning is valued.

Secondly, the environment in which children grow up has significantly changed with the advent of the internet.   Where once there was Encyclopedia Britannica, now there is Wikipedia.  I suspect that in the future, the number of computers per household may well reflect a scholarly culture as well as the number of books.

Evans MDR, Kelley J, Sikora J, & Treiman, DH. (2010) Family scholarly culture and educational success: Books and schooling in 27 nations. Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, 28, 171-197.

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