Research into reading, the promotion of reading and literature education

Reading education by parents

-> An intensive reading education contributes to literacy and social success. Children of parents who read often, read aloud and have a well-stocked bookcase, read more often themselves, are more proficient in reading and progress further in education.

-> Highly educated parents, in particular, pay attention to reading education.

-> Government literacy programmes and programmes to promote reading may prevent deprivation in families at risk.

-> Friends also make a contribution to reading motivation and reading proficiency.

Reading behaviour (and reading aloud)

The Dutch proverb ‘Jong geleerd is oud gedaan’ (similar to the English proverb “catch them young”) also applies to reading. Children who grow up in a rich reading environment often develop into passionate readers. In adulthood they not only read detectives and romantic fiction more often, but also Dutch and translated literature. Above all, parents set a good example. If they read a book regularly, their children will mirror that behaviour. Secondly, parents offer direct guidance. If they read aloud to their children and talk about and discuss books, they stimulate their children’s pleasure in reading (Notten, 2012).

The direct guidance starts with reading aloud. Children in the age group from 10 to 19 years whose parents read aloud to them at a young age enjoy reading more, read more often themselves and even undergo less of a reading dip, which readers often experience during puberty. The gap between them and children whose parents do not read to them aloud is greater in the case of boys than in the case of girls—reading aloud is particularly important for boys (Stiftung Lesen, 2011). Other activities also have a favourable effect. Parents who discuss books with their children, give them books as a present and take them to the bookshop and library, stimulate their children’s reading behaviour and motivation to read (Huysmans, 2013).

School career

An intensive reading education gives a boost to children’s education careers. Children who regularly see their parents read, particularly if this involves Dutch and translated literature, perform better at school. The effect is even stronger if, in addition to the ‘good’ example, they also receive direct guidance in the form of reading aloud and discussions about books (Notten, 2012). A parent who sets an example for reading is more important for educational achievements than visits to museums or theatres (De Graaf, De Graaf & Kraaykamp, 2000).

Reading proficiency

An intensive reading education contributes to general literacy and breadth of reading.  Secondary school pupils who have had books read aloud to them or who have often read (silently) together with their parents perform better in reading. In PISA they score 25 points higher than peers who did so irregularly or not at all, which is the equivalent of six months of reading education. Besides reading books (aloud), telling stories and discussing the day’s events also have a positive effect, although their effects are smaller (PISA in Focus, 2011). 

The same findings were observed for children at primary schools. They appear to be more proficient readers if their parents have read aloud to them and have told them stories. Although the reading proficiency of primary school pupils has declined in the past 10 years, this applies less to children with a rich reading environment at home (Netten, 2014).

The relationship between the home situation and proficiency does not apply to arithmetic. While the basis for literacy is laid by the example set by and the guidance of parents, the development of arithmetical skills is to a far greater extent a school-based activity (Netten, 2014).

Parents also play a positive role in reading education. By showing that they are committed to school, they support the teacher. They can do so by reading aloud to the child, by listening to their child’s reading achievements or reading aloud together with their child. They are most effective when they teach their child specific reading skills, such as the alphabet or mastering new words. Both children with normal development and children with reading difficulties benefit from this with respect to their reading proficiency; the benefit is the same regardless of childrens’ social environment (Sénéchal, 2006).

Possession of books

Apart from the example set and guidance by parents, a well-stocked bookcase is also important. Children who have a broad and varied supply of books at home perform better in school (Notten, 2012). The education career of children from families with a wealth of books is on average three years longer than that of children from families deprived of books, even if differences in the level of education, work and socio-economic background are taken into account. The possession of books probably accompanies a culture which attaches considerable value to schooling and educational performance/achievement. Children from low-educated families benefit most from a well-stocked bookcase. In their case, the correlation between the school career and the number of books at home is strongest (Evans et al., 2010).

Reading guidance has a greater effect than the possession of books. If parents wish to stimulate pleasure in reading, reading proficiency and the education careers of their children, it is advisable, above all, to read aloud to them regularly (Gottfried et al., 2015).

The more developed a country is in terms of culture, technology and economics, the more the presence of books at home determines the education career of children (Notten, 2012). In the case of the Netherlands, as a knowledge and services economy, the presence of well-stocked bookcases is of particular importance. On average, residents of the Netherlands own a considerable number of books.

The education gap

More highly educated parents pay more attention to reading education than lower educated parents. Firstly, they more often set a good example to their children. More often they read Dutch and translated literature (a serious example) as well as detectives and romantic fiction (a popular example) more frequently (themselves), even though in the latter case the gap relative to the lower educated is smaller. In addition, more highly educated parents spend more time on direct reading guidance. They read aloud to their children more often and also discuss books more often (Notten, 2012). Finally, they bring more reading materials into the home, including picture and children’s books (Rodriguez, Tamis-LeMonda, Spellman, Pan, Raikes, Lugo-Gil & Luze, 2009).

More highly educated parents also distinguish themselves in a positive sense in the daily use of language. On average, their children hear 2,153 words an hour. The children of parents with secondary education hear 1,251 words an hour, while in the case of parents with a low level of education the average is 616 words an hour. This translates into the vocabulary of their children. While children of more highly educated parents have mastered 1,100 words by the age of three, children of parents with secondary education have mastered 750 words and children of parents with a low education 500 words (Hart & Risley, 1995). This gap grows as children grow older. Between the ages of 18 months and two years, children learn 30% more new words from parents who are more highly educated than children of parents with a low level of education (Fernald, Marchman & Weisleder, 2012). There is a risk of a Matteüs effect: richly literate children become richer, while poorly literate children become poorer.

Within the various levels of education, however, the differences are also considerable. For instance, within the group of parents with a low level of education the number of words used daily varies from 2,000 to 30,000 words. The level of education therefore does not appear to be the main predictor of children’s language development. More important are the variety and the quality of language offered. It is of particular importance if parents seek interaction directly, for instance in relation to shared symbols (‘Look, a dog!’, ‘Yes, that is a bus!’) and rituals (‘Do you want to go to bed after your bottle?’, ‘Daddy’s going to tell you a story.’). Conversations between adults in the presence of children do not have an effect (Weisleder & Fernald, 2013).

The level of education is not the only family characteristic that determines reading education. Parents who are divorced and/or have many children generally have less time available to invest in their children. As a result, not only do they have less time for reading books themselves, but they also read aloud less and talk less often about books (Notten, 2013).

Professional support

Government programmes for literacy and promoting reading offer family support for reading education. By doing so, they try to reach groups at risk, such as parents with a low level of education, multilingual parents or parents with a low level of literacy. They learn how to stimulate the language development of their children by talking to them, doing language exercises together or reading aloud from picture and children’s books. It appears from a meta-analysis of 30 studies that such programmes encourage (early) literacy. The younger the child, the greater the benefit: start early is the motto. Children from families at risk achieve results comparable to those of children from families which are not at risk. It makes no difference whether the trainers are (semi) professionals or volunteers (Van Steensel, McElvany, Kurvers & Herppich, 2011).

Friends also make a contribution

Besides parents, friends also contribute to reading education. Children and young people who often receive reading tips, discuss books with friends, are encouraged to read and often see their friends reading, read more often and are more motivated to read. This is the case in comparison with children of their own age who are not exposed to these reading influences (Klauda & Wigfield, 2012). The attitude to reading of adolescent boys appears to be influenced to a greater extent by their friends than that of girls. In their case, this influence has a stronger effect on the motivation to read. (Merga, 2014).

What children and young people read is also influenced by their friends. For instance, after their mother, children receive help most often from their friends when choosing a book (Maynard, MacKay, & Smyth, 2008; Huysmans, 2013). The book recommendations made by friends are also followed more often than those of other reading educators, such as (grand) parents, brothers and sisters, teachers and library assistants. After the school and library, friends are also often the most important source of borrowed books (Maynard, MacKay, & Smyth, 2008).