As the debate over public education rages on, a new study points to another factor that could help shape early education programs: Mom’s reading skills.
A mother’s reading skill is the greatest determinant of her children’s future academic success and outweighs other influences, such as neighborhood and family income. So, improving mothers’ literacy skills may be the best way to boost their children’s achievement, the study, released by the National Institutes of Health and published in the most recent issue of Demography shows.
Acquiring basic reading and math skills during childhood is important to success in adult life, the authors report, citing previous research, which shows that “cognitive skills are powerful determinants of access to cognitively demanding jobs and higher wages, even when the effects of schooling, work experience and social class background are controlled for.”
By studying which factors most affect children’s skill achievement, researchers can develop policies and interventions to help improve children’s education — especially among disadvantaged children — and hopefully break the cycle of low achievement that can be passed down through generations, the study reports.
The study, which used data collected from 2,350 children from Los Angeles, ages 3 to 17, during 2000-2001, found significant socioeconomic inequalities in children’s skills associated with neighborhood income and family socioeconomic status including mother’s reading achievement and schooling and family income and assets. Differences in family and neighborhood socioeconomic status are associated with at least one-fifth of the total inequality in children’s reading scores and one-third in children’s math scores.
“Children in higher-SES families score better on the assessments primarily because their mothers have better reading skills and more schooling and because they live in higher income neighborhoods,” the researchers say.
The authors found that mothers with higher reading scores were more likely to read to children regularly, to have children’s books in the house and to enjoy reading themselves — all behaviors that have been shown to positively affect children’s reading skills.
After the mother’s reading level, neighborhood income level was, overall, the largest determining factor of children’s academic achievement. However, for children ages 8 to 17 — the middle and higher end of the age range — neighborhood income had the largest impact. The researchers say this is in line with the idea that the environment outside the home becomes more important as children get older.
The authors conclude that programs designed to reduce socioeconomic inequality in children’s skills acquisition should focus specifically on children whose parents have poor reading skills. This could include programs that target higher quality early childhood and school-based programs to these children or by providing adult literacy education to their parents.
“The findings indicate that programs to improve maternal literacy skills may provide an effective means to overcome the disparity in academic achievement between children in poor and affluent neighborhoods,” says Dr. Rebecca Clark, chief of the Demographic and Behavioral Sciences Branch at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the NIH institute that funded the study.