Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Books, books, books

I have sitting with me at all times a piece of research called 'Family scholarly culture and educational success: books and schooling in 27 nations'. It is authored by MDR Evans, Jonathan Kelley, Joanna Sikora and Donald J. Treiman, and it comes from a journal called Research in Social Stratification and Mobility 28 (2010) 171-197.  It comes from the Sociology Department of the University of Nevada and you can buy it from or the British Library or access it through a university library that carries that journal.

OK, that's the referencing stuff over.

Here's the abstract:

'Children growing up in homes with many books - [later defined in the research as around 500 books] - get 3 years more schooling than children from bookless homes... [Yes, yes, yes, we might say here, of course they do. We know that. Children from homes with 500 books are middle class homes, with at least one parent who has had a university education who sits and reads to their children every night and goes to museums every weekend. Yes, yes, yes  tell me something new...]...independent of their parents' education, occupation and class. [What? Seriously? Are you saying, Evans et al, that a home with 500 books, with both parents having no education beyond 16, both working in a factory as production workers results in children getting 3 more years schooling than children from similar homes but without the books????!!!!] This [500 books in the home]is as great an advantage as having university educated rather than unschooled parents and twice the advantage of having a professional rather than an unskilled father....
Data are from representative national samples in 27 nations, with over 70,000 cases...[and for the research wonks here:] analyzed using multi-level linear and probit models with multiple imputation of missing data'.

end of abstract

Now what should we make of this? Seemingly, it is saying that the single factor of a home having 500 books in it gives children those extra 3 years of education. Or put my way, having books around - and all the activities related to it - enables children of all backgrounds to 'access' the school curriculum in such a way as to further enable children to hang in there longer at school, to get more education, more out of the system.

The moment I saw that piece of research my mind flew off in several directions at the same time.

First, we might want to ask ourselves why such a piece of research is a trade secret? Why aren't the world's ministers of education waving it about as a basis for some kind of major 'initiatives' or democratic action? Wouldn't you as a minister of education fasten on to it, invite the researchers into your office, grill them about  the evidence and methodology and if it all held up, wouldn't you then institute some kind of programme, some kind of plan for action which you could say would guarantee that millions more children would be able to benefit from school for longer? Wouldn't you quickly gather together librarians, bookshop owners and chains, local authority cultural officers, cultural administrators, all the reading NGOs and quangos, headteachers, literacy co-ordinators and get them quickly planning how to put a national programme into action which would enable every home to get hold of 500 books (perhaps this could be widened to include magazines and comics)?

But no. What we get is the Michael Gove model of encouraging reading - running through lists of desirable authors in front of audiences at Tory Party conferences. 'Read Dryden,' he commands airily from the platform. 'Read 50 books a year,' he says as if this has some kind of meaning.

Behind the scenes,charities like the National Literacy Trust, Booktrust and the like bust their guts to get children, schools and books hooked up together but it is inevitably piecemeal - and I say that as a passionate supporter of their activities. But it's not the universal provision that this piece of research points the way to.

That said, let's pause a moment and ask ourselves how or why the phenomenon of 500 books in a home 'independent of their parents' education, occupation, and class' can have such a dramatic effect?

The researchers are not trained teachers of 'English' or literacy but this is what they suggest. 'A book-oriented home environment, we argue, endows children with tools that are directly useful in learning at school: vocabulary, information, comprehension skills, imagination, broad horizons of history and geography, familiarity with good writing, understanding of the importance of evidence in argument and many others.'

Now, I might not want to express it in those terms but I can see what they're getting at and can relate it to the kind of home I came from and the kinds of home I've contributed to for my own children. I would slot in there several other 'endowments':

1. It's virtually impossible to live with 500 books and not talk about them. Talk about books and texts of any kind is, if you like, an 'unpacking' process. It breaks down the written code or 'dialect' as I inaccurately call it, into the usable chunks of speech and listened-to pieces. It also treats knowledge as 'dialogic' - that's to say, re-arrangeable and changeable through dialogue, through the different understandings of different people. This is mind-expanding stuff. To possess this kind of dialogic ability is to possess one of the key processes of education.

2. A group of people who talk about texts over and over again build up ways of challenging received wisdoms and creating wisdoms of their own.  To have the confidence to do this is to possess another key process of education.

3. A group of people who own books, magazines and comics browse - and talk about browsing - through the texts. Browsing and selecting reading from piles of books is highly sophisticated use of text. It involves scanning, comparing, selecting and categorising. I have seen all my children do this with anything from comics to football programmes to fairy books to 'Horrid Henry' books or whatever and I've seen then do it from the age of 6 and yet these processes of scanning, comparing, selecting and categorizing of written texts are some of the hardest things to teach. Children at home with many texts do it as part of their 'tidying up' or chatting. It's higher order thinking, if you like done with ease and as fun.

4. Literature - one strong part of the 500 books we might guess - but of course not necessarily so - is one of the most powerful ways human beings have invented to pass on experience and ideas. As I've said before it marries ideas and feelings attached to beings we come to recognise and care about. If you sit with a child or young person when they read or talk about books, you will at some point engage with both: the feelings and ideas. What happens here is that you find that you move quickly from the concrete situation in the text |(let's say it's a scene to do with bullying) to a concrete situation in real life (again, bullying) and into some kind of generality about thought, ideas or 'what to do'. This movement between the concrete and the abstract is what literature nearly always offers. It is also a key component of what education tries to do: teach abstract ideas in relation to concrete phenomena.

5. The written code or dialect is a hard form of language to learn and get used to. No matter what methods of working out how letters and sounds relate to each other (or not) you have to also get a sense of how sentences and paragraphs sound - what MAK Halliday calls the 'wording'. You also have to get a sense of what this wording can do for you. When there are many texts about in a home, there is every possibility that someone at some time or another, probably quite often, reads some texts out loud. This makes the written dialect oral. It appears to lift the dialect off the page and puts it into cadences, phrasings, musical sequences that 'make sense'. It gives written texts what is known as 'prosody' - verbal music. This prosody is a crucial platform on which learning to read whole texts is made much, much easier. As a child, you get the sound of the written language and you get the point of the written language. You hear, let's say, a Roald Dahl novel read out loud, perhaps you couldn't read it for yourself, but here you are understanding it and enjoying it...doesn't this provoke you and motivate you to read whole texts yourself? A reader of whole texts is someone who can 'access the curriculum'.

I'm sure people reading this can think of other ways, the presence of 500 books in the home give children and young people this kind of power of access.

The key thing though is what do we do about it? What can we do? What should we do?