Note: This isn’t a contest, like my last post. I won’t be awarding stuffed animals to the people with the most books. However, if you have a lot of books—and the research I’ll share in this article makes this point persuasively—you’ll win something far more valuable: better language ability for your children.
This past Saturday we went to Hiroshima International School for its big spring festival. It’s been nearly ten years since I taught there, but we haven’t missed a festival yet. For me, my main motivation—apart from seeing old friends—is the books: children’s books of all kinds, from the school library and students’ homes, at rock-bottom prices.
I came home with two heavy shopping bags.
Most of them are chapter books, either books I can read aloud to my kids at breakfast or books we’ll read together in “shared reading” (taking turns, page by page) as part of our daily homework routine. About half are above their level of maturity, though, and these will join the many others that wait patiently until they’re older.
If you stepped inside my little house, you’d probably laugh: it’s bursting with books, to the point where there really isn’t room for them all. Our bookshelves overflowed long ago and there are now tipsy piles growing from the floor like weeds. (My wife just shakes her head and sighs. )
When we got home from the festival, I sat down at the table, happily examining my treasure and taping together the loose covers and pages. That’s when Lulu approached me and said, “Daddy, we have too many books!”
“Too many books?” I replied.
“You can never have too many books!”
My philosophy of education
“You can never have too many books!” These tweetable words basically sum up my entire philosophy of education since I first became an English teacher of bilingual children at Hiroshima International School back in 1999. After reading such books as The Power of Reading and The Read-Aloud Handbook, I was completely persuaded that books and reading—lots of books and lots of reading—were the single best way to nurture a child’s language ability.
So during my teaching time there, I flooded my classroom with books and read often to my students. As I watched their English ability grow quickly, it became clear to me that this same approach would form the bedrock of my own efforts to one day raise bilingual children of my own. I would flood the house with books in the minority language and make reading a daily staple of my family’s lifestyle.
I have seen the rewarding results of this “method” in my own personal experience, but in fact, there is also prominent research which indicates that a correlation between the number of books in the home and a child’s language development and ability, as well as academic achievement and even career success, is evident in countries and languages around the world.
Pursued over a period of 20 years and published in 2010, the authors of the massive study Family scholarly culture and educational success: Books and schooling in 27 nations analyzed the lives of some 70,000 people in 27 countries with this key question at the heart of their research: About how many books were in your family’s house when you were 14 years old? (Any books, not simply books for children.)
At the same time, they also gathered background data on these participants, such as the parents’ level of education and occupation, and their own schooling and work.
What does this research reveal? It demonstrates—even given the parents’ level of education and occupation, as well as such factors as gender, class, nationality, political system, and gross national product—that the impact of books is the same throughout the world and throughout many generations: children in families with a home library of 500 books or more experience significantly greater educational success. On average, these children pursue their education for 3.7 years longer than children in homes with few or no books.
As the authors themselves write: “We find that parents’ commitment to scholarly culture [defined as “the way of life in homes where books are numerous, esteemed, read, and enjoyed”], manifest by a large home library, greatly enhances their children’s educational attainment. … Scholarly culture has a powerful impact on children’s education throughout the world, in rich nations and in poor, under Communism and under capitalism, under good governments and bad, in the present generation and as far back in history as now living memory can take us. … 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.”
Implications for parents
Although this study was concerned more broadly with books in the majority language of each nation, and success in schooling, I think there are important implications for parents seeking to support the minority language of their bilingual children. After all, success in schooling is a direct outgrowth of success in language development.
Build a home library of books in the minority language—the bigger, the better
Even if you don’t own 500 books (both children’s books and books for adults count!), the more books you have, and the more you make use of those books by reading aloud to your children each day and reading together, the more your children’s language ability will grow.
And, as the study suggests, the language-related “tools” that your children will gain in the minority language will also be a source of support to them when attending school in the majority language. For example, the knowledge about the world that my kids have gleaned from our English books at home will serve them well when studying similar topics in Japanese at school.
Create an environment of bookshelves and books, not simply e-readers and e-books
One important reason I haven’t yet shifted from “real books” to e-books is because real books, in my view, provide a much richer environment for the senses. It’s true, we’re slowly getting buried in books here, but the fact that my kids are surrounded by them (and stumbling over them), day in and day out, makes books and reading a way of life.
With bookshelves, books are continuously on display and available for discovery; this just isn’t the case with e-books lurking inside an e-reader. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking e-books—they would certainly help me dig out of my housekeeping dilemma. But, to me, they turn books from “public things” into “private things.” For the sake of my children’s language development, I want our home environment to support my aims, and I think making books tangible and tactile, as “public things” always beckoning to the eye, is a more effective course during their formative years.
Keep in mind, as these researchers contend, that a “taste for books is largely inherited”
Of course, our main goal involves supporting the minority language of our bilingual kids. But have you ever considered the fact that, in a way, the support you’re providing to your children today will also affect the language development of their kids, your future grandchildren? (Sorry to turn you into a grandparent so soon! )
The study on “scholarly culture” makes this very clear in exploring the question: Where do libraries come from—who acquires a large library? And the authors conclude that “Scholarly culture, and the taste for books that it brings, persists from generation to generation within families largely of its own accord, independent of education and class.”
In other words, if you build a big library of books in your home, your children probably will, too, when they’re adults! And if your children do, your grandchildren will do the same for their own kids! (And so on, book after book, life after life, until the world stops spinning and we’re all just glittering star dust once again…)
Want to add to your library of English books? See the category Books for Kids.