By Naaman Zhou for The Guardian
Fri 12 Oct 2018
Do you have more books than an Estonian teenager? If you live in an English-speaking country, the answer is probably no.
A new study from researchers at the Australian National University and University of Nevada in the US has revealed which countries are the world’s biggest bookworms – and discovered that having more books growing up, even if you don’t necessarily read more, improves educational outcomes. In fact, adults with university degrees, but who grew up with fewer books, had the same level of literacy as those who left school in year 9, but who had a lot of household books as a teen. The study, published in the journal Social Science Research, found the number of household books at age 16 had a direct positive relationship with literacy, numeracy and IT skill in later years – independent of how much tertiary study a person did, or how often they read as an adult.
On average Australians owned 148 books per house, but the largest chunk of respondents (35%) had only 65. Estonians, who lead the world, averaged 218, and 35% owned 350 books or more. Norway (212), Sweden (210) and the Czech Republic (204) also beat English-speaking countries like the UK (143) and the US (114). Turkey had the lowest average (27), with 60% of households saying they had only five books. Lead author, Dr Joanna Sikora from the ANU, said adolescent exposure to books laid the foundations for a “scholarly culture” that gave people life-long improvements in education, regardless of social advantage or disadvantage.
The benefit of books was consistent across the world, and independent of a person’s education level, their job as an adult, sex, age or the education level of their parents. Looking just at Australian data, where researchers had more detail, they even found the same trend when controlling for wealth, IQ and school grades. “No matter what we controlled for, we always got this advantage of growing up around books,” Sikora said. Previous studies have found a relationship between reading for fun and education outcomes, and between growing up with books and earning more as an adult, but this study found a stronger link across more countries, and for longer into adulthood. Researchers surveyed adults across 31 countries, between the ages of 25 and 65, and asked them how many books they had in their home when they were 16. They found the positive impact was greatest for those with higher levels of disadvantage, meaning lower income families could narrow the education gap by exposing their children to more books in the house.
“Literacy-wise, bookish adolescence makes up for a good deal of educational advantage,” the report said. Sikora said they were surprised to see that household books led to improvements even in maths and IT skills. “The tendency is to think that this is a different skill. You either are a words person or a numbers person. But if this data is telling us anything, it’s that this is not the case at all. We didn’t expect that. It is not just: if you read books as a kid, you are good at reading books later on. You are actually good at literacy in a completely different environment, the digital environment.” However, Sikora stressed that it was not the act of reading specifically that brought benefits. “It’s very difficult to put a finger on it and say ‘just do a lot of reading’. There is more to it. It is a whole complex around books and reading. It’s important for young children to see their parents and other people surrounding themselves with books.”
[Cultural differences in reading is fascinating. I wonder why Estonia comes out top?]