Content Lacking in Children’s Book-Sharing Experiences in Low-Income, Ethnic-Minority Households, Says Rutgers–Camden Study

By Tom McLaughlin

The lack of content in books that children can access – and not merely the total number of books – has profound implications for efforts to narrow long-term language and achievement gaps in low-income, ethnic-minority households, according to new Rutgers University–Camden research.

Luo explains that different types of books offer unique reading and learning opportunities.

The study – conducted by Rufan Luo, an assistant professor of psychology at Rutgers–Camden, and New York University researchers Catherine Tamis-LeMonda and Alan Mendelsohn – examined book-sharing access for 153 four-year-olds from low-income, ethnic-minority families in the United States.

The findings, published in Reading Research Quarterly, showed that, while most families had a variety of concept books – highlighting basic concepts, such as numbers, colors, and shapes – there was limited access to narrative books containing storylines involving engaging elements, such as relationships, folktales, culture, and religion.

“This is critically important because different types of books offer unique reading and learning opportunities,” says Luo.

Prior studies, explains the Rutgers–Camden researcher, show that one of the primary ways to minimize the language and achievement gaps between children from low-income, ethnic-minority families and their more affluent or English-speaking peers is to encourage book-reading activities that introduce new knowledge and concepts which children are not typically exposed to in their daily lives.

“They would rarely hear words like dragon or castle in their everyday conversations,” says Luo. “Book reading broadens children’s vocabularies, supports cognitive and early language skills, and even heightens children’s interest in reading.”

Luo notes that, while prior studies have asked mothers to report how many books that their children have in the home, she and her fellow researchers went one step further and asked them to report whether they had different types of concept and narrative books. The researchers also asked mothers to report how frequently that they engage in book-reading activities with their children.

Luo explains that book reading broadens children’s vocabularies, supports cognitive and early language skills, and even heightens children’s interest in reading.

In addition, says Luo, the researchers conducted lab observations of mothers sharing a storybook – not merely reading, but an active exchange – with their children. The book was wordless, she notes, allowing mothers to decide how they wished to share the book and without one’s primary language or language proficiency influencing the interaction.

The researchers recorded these interactions, transcribed what was said, and coded certain features of the book-sharing behaviors. For instance, the researchers noted whether the mother asked simple questions, such as “What color is that?” or “What is this?” or more demanding questions, such as “What is the boy doing?” and “Why is the boy happy?” The researchers also coded what mothers asked about storylines and the children’s responses to these questions.

“These are very important features of their book-sharing styles, which could have long-term implications for children’s cognitive and language development,” says Luo.

Among their findings, she says, they discovered that family composition and home language use had the greatest influence on the variation in book access. For instance, children who have older siblings had a greater access to narrative books than those who are first-born.

“This is interesting, because other studies have shown that first-born children tend to receive greater educational investment,” she says. “In our study, we found that later-born children actually have an advantage.”

The researchers posit that, in ethnic minority families, older siblings may serve as a bridge between the home and school learning environment. She theorizes that, by the time older siblings are old enough to attend school, they may bring books home and increase the limited availability.

According to Luo, the researchers also found that children who are living with both parents have a greater access to concept and narrative books than children who are living solely with their mother.

“It suggests that fathers provide unique educational support,” she says.

Furthermore, the research showed that children from English-speaking families had access to a greater variety of narrative books. The researchers posit that if parents whose first language is not English share a book in English – a language not as familiar – then they are more likely to share one with basic concepts that are universal across different languages and cultures, such as numbers or shapes, rather than one exploring more in-depth, culture-specific ideas, such as religious beliefs.

“When there’s a lack of narrative books in parents’ primary language, these parents might turn to other forms of language and literacy activities, such as oral storytelling,” says Luo.

In terms of the relationship between children’s book access and their actual book-sharing experiences, the researchers found that mothers and children who had a greater variety of narrative books shared books more frequently. When asked to share a book in the lab, these mothers were more likely to ask questions about the storylines, which encourage their children to co-tell the story and practice narrative skills.

Meanwhile, mothers and children who had a greater variety of concept books focused on labeling objects and describing basic features of story characters – a book-sharing style that might help children build vocabulary and gain basic cognitive concepts such as numbers and colors.

“This is because these mothers were used to sharing concept books in their daily lives, so even when they shared a narrative book, they would ask those academic-related questions,” says Luo. “This shows how access to concept and narrative books in daily life may shape mothers’ book-sharing style with their children.”

Based on these findings, says the Rutgers–Camden researcher, book distribution programs that give out books to families in need and promote book-reading activities should focus not just on the amounts of books that children have, but the variety and content of books as well.

Caregivers and teachers, continues Luo, should also be aware how different types of books offer unique language-acquisition and cognitive-growth opportunities for children and embrace a variety of book resources.

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