The Benefits of Reading to Children, Tested With a Data Pool of One

One of the most controversial small points in Freakonomics was the claim that early childhood test scores are not correlated to the amount a child is read to at home.

If you read Carl Bialik‘s “Numbers Guy” column in today’s Wall Street Journal, you’ll learn why so many people have thought otherwise. Here’s an excerpt:

Children from low-income households average just 25 hours of shared reading time with their parents before starting school, compared with 1,000 to 1,700 hours for their counterparts from middle-income homes.

These oft-repeated numbers originate in a 1990 book by Marilyn Jager Adams titled, “Beginning to Read: Thinking And Learning About Print.” Ms. Adams got the 25-hours estimate from a study of 24 children in 22 low-income families. For the middle-income figures, she extrapolated from the experience of a single child: her then-4-year-old son, John …

These numbers have since been applied to all middle-income children. That’s akin to predicting that all young children from middle-income families will graduate college with a degree in psychology and statistics, as John, now 23, has done.


I openly wonder if the "Matters" list were thinks that the author (and his highly educated readers) typically do, versus things that others do.

I'm not accusing here, but is there any way to test that?

In the spirit of disclosure, we are new post-30 year old book-owning urban professional parents, so I am happy with the findings - I'm just curious if there was any bias in the study (the opposite types of parents typically don't perform such statistcial analysis in their daily jobs.)


I read Freakomics a long time ago, so this may be a stupid question. I work at a literacy-based day camp for underprivileged kids. Children read every day one-on-one with an adult. On one level, the claim in Freakonomics that being read to as a child doesn't matter much would invalidate much of what I do. However, one thing I tell volunteers every day is that the time they spend with the kids is at least as important if not more so that the reading itself. Could it be, therefore, that a parent or adult figure's positive presence, much more than the particular form of their interaction, is what helps the kid develop?


This makes good sense. This issue was kind of raised by James Heckman who is a Noble prize winner at Chicago. I think stuff kind of caused a tiff between Levitt and Heckman, which was captured in a Scheiber article which made Levitt so upset that it led to a dog-fight between Levitt and Scheiber sometime in march I think.

Heckman argues that the kind of reseach Levitt does is more about generating sensationalism rather than the ones which aren't popular. Levitt counters his kind of research matters more, and if a research takes too long, it indicates you are wasting time.

I tend to agree with both. Most econ research is nonsense and people should focus more on churning out papers regularly but every now and then painstaking research leads to benefits.


I don't think its the actual reading that causes the positive outcomes. I think, generally, that the type of people who take the time to read to their children probably have children who feel loved and secure and probably live up to their potential.


Who cares. I read to my kids because I love that time with them, and they love that one on one time with Daddy. That's the point.


I can't imagine that reading to your children can hurt them or there test scores (and why is everyone so hung up on test scores anyway?), so go ahead and read to your kids. The time spent reading to my kids form some of my fondest memories of their childhood, which is what really matters.


Forget the "data pool of one" - what about the low-income data pool and the multitude of other factors that may have contributed to their lower literacy? Less time for parents to help with homework, less $ to hire tutors if needed, lower quality public schools, nutrition, financial stress in the home, possibly more violence and/or drugs in their communities, etc. etc. etc.


Readers may be interested in a 2004 interview with Marilyn Jager Adams, at the website Children of the Code:

in which she covers, among other things,history of Phonemic Awareness Revolution, what children find so confusing about learning to read, the importance of childrens' vocabulary in learning to read, and how mastery of the ABCs (being able to rapidly name the letters) is an important predictor of success in learning to read.

Another interview with Todd Risley, commenting on a remarkable study he undertook with Betty Hart in Kansas City in the late 1960s.

They had data samples on 42 infants from high SES families, highly educated families, middle income families, and welfare families. The researchers visited the families once per month from the time the infant was 7 months old to the time the infant was 36 months old, and recorded interactions for an hour each visit.

What they found were tremendous differences in (a) the amount of words the infants heard and (b) the content of the language utterances.

The researchers extrapolated, based on their sample recordings, that in taciturn families, the infants heard about 13 million words; average families, about 30 million words; and the talkative families, up to about 48 million words.

They also found that there was a sort of baseline of "directive language" (Stop that," "get down there," "hold out your hands,"--business language, so to speak, that any parent utters in tending an infant or toddler. The taciturn families mostly had business talk. The more talkative families had different kinds of interactions--more conversations, more invitations to the infant to respond, and more elaboration's on the child's utterances.

Tying these two threads together: what if "being read to" is actually a proxy for "talking a lot to your infant and toddler? In other words, when a child is being read to, especially a child early in the language acquisition process, it's often not just the adult reading and the child listening, it's much more interactive. Think about "Pat the Bunny" -- the adult reads a phrase, and the child does something, then the adult talks about the sensation, and then reads another phrase.

Or you are sitting down to read--you might ask the child, "do you want to read "Hop on Pop" or "Red Fish, Blue Fish?" -- more interactive language.





I would just like to point out that while the
evidence in support of the benefits of reading
to children may be weak, the evidence in support
of "reading for pleasure" is much stronger.

For example:

"Children's interest in reading has more impact
on their academic performance than their
socio-economic group, research suggests."

"Reading for pleasure: A research overview" for pleasure.pdf

"Free Voluntary Reading and Autonomy in Second Language
Acquisition: Improving TOEFL Scores from Reading Alone"

"I decided to investigate two related areas.
My primary research question was whether the
students in my ABE program would experience
greater gains in reading fluency and comprehension
after reading for 15 minutes or more a day than
they had without doing this reading."



Reading to children is an important way to
encourage children to "read for pleasure", but
by itself it is not enough.

Ways to encourage your child to "read for pleasure":

- have many books available in your home and school
for your child to read, especially books that are
not too hard nor too easy for your child's reading
- regular trips to the library
- allowing your child to pick which books to read
(even comic books)
- allow bed time reading
- teach by example by reading for pleasure yourself
- restrict TV watching and video game playing
- if your child loves TV and hates reading, make a
rule that the TV can only be on if the sound is
turned off, with the captioning on.
- read to your child (perhaps least important)


Start eairly!! It is best if you start from birth. Though a infant cannot understand thy are still listing to what you are saying. Reading to your child, to me, is one of the BEST things you can do for them.