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Bookish homes enhance literacy everywhere

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The effect of having lots of books around adolescents is profound, even those who didn’t go on to higher education experienced better literacy levels because of their exposure to books.

A new study of 31 countries shows that being surrounded by books in the home during adolescence may have as big an impact on long-term literacy, numeracy, and digital skills as a university education.

Adults whose education ended at Year 9 but who spent their adolescence in homes with large libraries had similar test results to university graduates whose homes were empty of books.

The study’s lead author, Dr Joanna Sikora of Australian National University, said the positive effect was clearest at the bottom end of the scale: the difference in results was largest between homes with few books and a medium number of books, rather than a large number and an enormous number.

The study is based on the data from 162,955 participants in tests for the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) conducted between 2011 and 2015 in 31 societies, including Australia. The results for digital skills only drew on 106,585 participants, as results were not available in several locations.

The positive effect of books on literacy and numeracy was about equivalent. The effect was weaker for digital skills, but still significant.

Dr Sikora said the results show that “scholarly culture”, as reflected by books in the home, enhances cognitive skills. This runs against popular theories that scholarly culture is just part of “cultural capital”, whereby elites give children access to exclusive means of signalling their elite status (such as appreciation of classical literature and fine arts) that do not improve learning but improve their access to social privileges.

“While it is clear that appreciation of fine arts in adolescence does not improve cognitive outcomes,” said Dr Sikora, “being surrounded by books clearly does – suggesting that books are part of a culture of learning, not just a symbol of cultural status.”

"Early exposure to books in the parental home matters because books are an integral part of routines and practices which enhance lifelong cognitive competencies," said Dr Sikora.

The average size of home libraries varied from society to society. In Norway, for instance, it was 212, while in Australia it was 148 books. The average across the 31 societies was 115 books.

The exact means by which the presence of books in the home improves learning outcomes remains inconclusive. Dr Sikora and her co-authors point to multiple explanations worth investigating further: such as the simple availability of the books to read; children following their parents' examples; and family practices, such as storytelling, imaginative play and charades.

Regardless of the exact mechanism, the authors suggested that "scholarly culture is a way of life rather than concerted cultivation."

"The key conclusion here is that exposure to larger home libraries in adolescence has a positive direct effect on literacy, numeracy and ICT skills even when educational and occupational attainment of adults are controlled for," said the authors of the study.


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