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Apr 26, 2010
Growing a Reading Culture
Just for Parents
1579 Monroe Dr. NE
Atlanta, Georgia 30306
February 1, 2010
Dear Reader Parent,
The purpose of this report is to identify those activities which parents can undertake in
order to create an environment in the home where their children are more likely to
become habitual and enthusiastic readers.
While bits and pieces of the report are more or less well known recommendations as part
of general folk wisdom, (for example the injunction to read to your children), this is, we
believe, the first effort to collate the field evidence from academics in such a way that a
parent can quickly and easily see what works and what does not.
We wish you all the very best in your efforts to give to your children the wonderful gift
and love of reading.
© Through the Magic Door 2
Copyright © 2010 Charles Bayless
© Through the Magic Door 3
Table of Contents
Summary ............................................................................................................................. 5
Chapter I: The Status of Reading in America Today...................................................... 7
Chapter II: Reading as a Cultural Trait ......................................................................... 12
Chapter III: A Family Based Approach to Reading........................................................ 19
Chapter IV: Assumptions, Measurements, and Data Reliability .................................... 32
List of Figures
Figure I - What is the Nature of the Problem? ........................................................ 8
Figure II - Changes in the Nature of Work ............................................................. 9
Figure III - Reading Concentration for High School and Adult Readers............. 10
Figure IV - Estimated Enthusiastic Reading Population by Income Quintile....... 11
Figure IV - Beginning Differentials ...................................................................... 13
Figure V - Sources of Influence on a Child by Time Spent.................................. 15
Figure VI - Risk Points for Abandoning Reading................................................. 18
Figure VII - Different Ways to Assess the Reading Problem ............................... 33
Figure VIII - Factors Influencing Personal Development..................................... 51
Figure IX – The Influence of Reading on Attribute Development ....................... 53
Figure X – Factors Shaping Individual Decision Making .................................... 54
Figure XI – Reading as an Intermediary Between Childhood Experience and Life
Figure XII – Factors Shaping Individual Decision Making.................................. 56
Appendix A: Recognizing a Reading Culture – Example………………………………40
Appendix B: Hypothetical Model of How Enthusiastic Reading Influences Life
Appendix C: Reading and Life Effectiveness………………………………………….. 56
Appendix D: Activities for Supporting a Reading Culture in the Home……………......60
Appendix E: Tools for Identifying Barriers to Creating a Reading Culture ……………67
Appendix F: Tactical Actions to Address the Most Common Barriers to Creating a
Reading Culture …………………………………………………………………………68
© Through the Magic Door 4
Reading is a complex and individual activity and becoming a reader is a process that is in
almost every case a unique combination of personal proclivities, life circumstances, and
serendipity. There are almost as many paths towards becoming an enthusiastic reader as
there are children and parents. What is uniform is the pleasure that habitual and
enthusiastic reading provides to the reader and the utilitarian benefits in terms of life
accomplishments that accrue to and are associated with enthusiastic and habitual readers1.
For all that becoming a reader is a function of many unique circumstances, there are some
broad features that are shared among participants in this journey. It is the purpose of this
report to identify which of those activities are most likely to increase the probability of a
child having a rewarding experience of reading and becoming a habitual and enthusiastic
reader, of becoming an engaged reader.
The research fields of education, psychology, childhood development, language studies,
library sciences, etc. all approach the activity of reading from their distinct perspectives
and with biases towards their distinct academic ends. We have perused all these fields in
an effort to pull out those observations and recommendations which can be shown to be
fact based and conducive to the end which we, and we believe most parents, seek: What
can be done within the family to make it more probable that a child will learn to love
reading and become a habitual and enthusiastic reader.
There is no single silver bullet that accomplishes this end but the set of actions that the
research reveals as effective are not complex or difficult to execute.
An important observation arises from the review of the academic literature which is
rarely highlighted and that is that reading is more than a skill. It is in fact a cultural trait.
This is a key issue as America is a multi-cultural country. Where different cultures exist,
there will be different outcomes and this is true not only for the US. While one might
discuss “European” culture as a general set of behaviors and beliefs, as we refer to
“American” culture, it is notable that in Europe there are marked differences in levels of
reading participation and reading intensity depending on which specific regional culture
within Europe you are referring to. In America we cloud this issue by referring to it as a
race issue or an issue of poverty whereas all the evidence and statistical numbers point to
it being an issue, not of race or wealth, but of culture.
An additional observation is with regard to schools. As detailed in this report, US
schools do an adequate job of equipping children with the skill to read such that the US
population, as also with its peers in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and
Development (OECD, all the major developed countries of the world), has a literacy rate
of 99%.2 This is not to say that the schools do this efficiently (cost per outcome) or
indeed that all schools accomplish this but in aggregate they do it effectively (the stated
objective, literacy, is achieved). US expenditures on schools are dramatically higher in
absolute and relative terms to what they were thirty and fifty years ago without any
© Through the Magic Door 5
material change in reading scores. Expenditures per student are not the root of the issue
of America’s reading challenges.
The goal of teaching children to read is being achieved (regardless of efficiency) but we
still have very large numbers of children (and adults) that elect not to read or who read
very little. In other words, schools do an adequate job of providing our children with the
skills to read but are very poor at instilling the will to read.
Regrettably, there are few studies that actually attempt to identify those activities which
contribute to a culture of reading. There are many studies that investigate how schools
might institutionally contribute to engaged reading but no one, in fifty years, has hit upon
an effective answer that consistently delivers that outcome. The evidence we have
amassed indicates that the inculcation of the will to read is a function of activities that
occur within the home environment.
Chapter 1 of this report, The Status of Reading in America Today, describes in some
detail the nature of the reading challenge with which we are faced, a challenge somewhat
different than is distilled for headline purposes into something like “Why Johnny Can’t
Read”.3 We cover the nature of the reading challenge as well as the data that indicates
why reading is so important, independent of the returns it provides in terms of personal
satisfaction and pleasure.
Chapter 2, Reading as a Cultural Trait , recapitulates the research evidence that supports
the contention that reading is a cultural attribute most easily instilled within the culture of
the home, as opposed to an issue of skill to be addressed through schools.
Chapter 3, A Family Based Approach to Reading, outlines the thirteen
attributes/activities which can be adhered to within the family environment that are likely
to increase the probability of your child becoming an enthusiastic reader.
Chapter 4, Assumptions, Measurements and Data Reliability, reviews some of the
challenges associated with converting what would seem to be a practical set of
contentions, into a data supported report. While not critical to the report itself, it does
give a context for evaluating the recommended actions and the level of confidence you
can have in the recommendations.
© Through the Magic Door 6
Chapter I: The Status of Reading in America Today
Reading is understood by most people to be a core capability required to function
effectively in a modern, complex society. It attracts a great deal of attention, whether
pedagogical, philosophical, political, or simply demagogical. The purpose of this report
is first and only to discover what works.
The first step in any problem solving methodology is to define the problem and determine
how it can or ought to be measured. If we define the problem as simply having the
capacity to read then there is no problem to become excited about. There is no crisis in
• Children are not becoming worse readers.
• Illiteracy is a numerically minor issue.
• The profile of US literacy is not materially different than the average of other
We could amend the problem definition and focus on issues such as; it takes too long for
children to become competent readers; it costs too much for our children to become
proficient readers (in the past forty years, reading skills scores have not changed
significantly despite an increased percentage of GDP devoted to education, a tripling of
real dollar resources devoted to education, and a diminution of the student to teacher
ratio); or possibly that certain groups of children are not demonstrating sufficient
achievement in terms of standard reading performance tests. While all these might be
discussions that are warranted they do not really address what most people are concerned
about when they evince concern about reading.
Based on performance scores, children are scoring basically as well as they did thirty and
fifty years ago. It is not that children are reading less well. Rather, the reading skills
required for life success are becoming greater. In order to continue to be successful in a
modern, complex society, children can’t simply do as well as their parents did in the past,
they have to do better.
© Through the Magic Door 7
Figure I - What is the Nature of the Problem?
The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), as part of its efforts to
measure educational effectiveness across some sixty countries, describes the changing
skills needed in modern economies as follows.
It also reflects the reality of how globalization and computerisation are changing
societies and labour markets. Work that can be done at a lower cost by computers
or workers in lower wage countries can be expected to continue to disappear in
OECD countries. This is particularly true for jobs in which information can be
represented in forms usable by a computer and/ or in which the process follows
simple, easy-to-explain rules. Box 2.1 illustrates this by analysing how skill
requirements in the United States job markets have evolved over past generations.
This analysis shows that the steepest decline in task input over the last decade has
not been with manual tasks, as is often reported, but with routine cognitive tasks,
i.e. those mental tasks that are well described by deductive or inductive rules, and
that dominate many of today’s middle-class jobs. This highlights that if students
learn merely to memorise and reproduce scientific knowledge and skills, they risk
being prepared mainly for jobs that are disappearing from labour markets in many
countries. In order to participate fully in today’s global economy, students need to
be able to solve problems for which there are no clear rule-based solutions and
also to communicate complex scientific ideas clearly and persuasively.4
Another observation based on the data in Box 2.1 is that there is declining demand for
manual work and declining demand for skills that are routine or repetitive. There is an
© Through the Magic Door 8
increase in demand for skills related to non-routine analytic and interactive skills, i.e.
skills requiring conceptual thinking, social environment awareness, critical perception,
etc. Skills that are fostered in part by enthusiastic and habitual reading.
Figure II - Changes in the Nature of Work
This changes the problem from being one of the simple capacity to read. We have
accomplished that. Because, as with most human activities, practice makes perfect, better
reading follows from more reading. We now need for more children to read more. The
problem becomes one not of the capacity to read as we historically thought about it. The
problem becomes one of children having the desire to read and demonstrating an
enthusiasm for reading. Viewed in this light, our current performance is more dire.
The challenge that we face is that there is a large attrition from childhood reading to
young adult reading in the participation rates (how many people choose to read at all); a
steady erosion in the volume of reading (the amount of time spent reading or the number
of books which are read); as well as a worryingly high concentration of reading (the
Pareto distribution of the percentage of population responsible for the percentage of
books read). Across the OECD, between 45% and 55% of the population declines to read
© Through the Magic Door 9
any books for pleasure in a given year (in the US the current participation rate is roughly
50%).5 This pattern is well established by the time children graduate from high school
and remains in place through their adult years. These are people that have acquired the
skill of reading but elect not to exercise that skill other than for work purposes or for the
purposes of navigating day-to-day life in an advanced economy. This is often referred to
as an issue of alliteracy – the capacity to read but not the desire.
Even for the half of the population which does read, there is a remarkable concentration
in reading. 10% of the population reads approximately 80% of the books purchased or
circulated. 40% of the population is responsible for only 20% of books purchased or
circulated.6 While virtually everyone is capable of reading, half are alliterate; they have
chosen not to read for pleasure, and nearly half only read intermittently. The fact that
50% of our population is alliterate and that this alliteracy is already present when children
graduate from high school, bodes ill for a future work force ever more dependent upon
abstract, conceptual and critical thinking (all of which are fostered by healthy reading
A corollary issue relates to inequality of income. If a substantial portion of the
population is alliterate, it is likely that over the long term, in a rapidly changing economy,
they will suffer diminishing returns on the necessary minimum education they have
achieved. It is also likely that, without continual self-improvement, there will be an
unavoidable continuation in the rise of the Genie index for income inequality.
Figure III - Reading Concentration for High School and Adult Readers
Population Books Read
The bulk of academic research into reading practices is overwhelmingly focused on what
can be done in a school environment and, most particularly, what can be done to assist
© Through the Magic Door 10
the most disadvantaged segments of the population. There is very little systematic or
longitudinal research to identify what actually characterizes an enthusiastic reader or how
they became such. While the raw data does not exist to firmly quantify the prevalence of
reading at each income level, indirect data provides the basis for indicative estimates. It
is believed that enthusiastic and habitual reading is a characteristic of a minority of
individuals in every income quintile (though there is anecdotally a much stronger
presence among the higher income quintiles).
Figure IV - Estimated Enthusiastic Reading Population by Income Quintile
4.5% of Σ Population 22.5% of Quintile
3% of Σ Population 15% of Quintile
1.5% of Σ Population 7.5% of Quintile
20% 0.5% of Σ Population 2.5% of Quintile
0.5% of Σ
Population 2.5% of Quintile
For a country facing issues of a competitive global economy, a clear causative correlation
between enthusiastic reading and productivity, an apparent limit to the capacity of
schools to affect reading participation/intensity and finally concern about income
inequalities, the central issue becomes – By what mechanism(s) can we increase
reading participation rates, reading volumes and decrease reading inequality?
© Through the Magic Door 11
Chapter II: Reading as a Cultural Trait
Effective reading is the result of specific actions and behaviors inculcated in the family
environment which produce the will to read (manifested in habitual and enthusiastic
reading) married with the skill to read (usually imparted by schools). These actions and
behaviors outweigh any influences based on such variables as race, IQ, income, gender or
other various demographic vectors.
For the majority of young people, enthusiastic and habitual reading is the single most
predictive personal habit for the ability to achieve desirable life outcomes. Enthusiastic
and habitual reading is primarily a function of the family environment and culture and it
is most effectively inculcated in the earliest years (0 to 6 years) but can be accomplished
at any age.7 Creating a reading culture can be achieved objectively and through a series
of specific behaviors and activities undertaken by parents. It is not resource intensive but
does require time, persistence and consistency.
Effective and enthusiastic reading is a well-recognized pre-cursor to better skills
acquisition, superior grades, and desirable life outcomes including income, profession,
employment and other attributes.8 Attitudes towards reading are established early in a
child’s life and substantially through the child’s family environment rather than through
school.9 These attitudes remain stable over time and are significant predictors of future
reading habits.10 Based not only on the experience of the US, but on a study of fifty-
seven countries, home background “remains one of the most powerful factors influencing
The fact that the US educational process is predominantly governed and directed at a very
local level (92% of funding deriving from local sources) has been both a tremendous
strength as well as a challenge.12 They are flip sides of the same coin. Local control
means that the capacity to design and execute in a fashion fit for local purpose is high.
At the same time, and as a consequence, the capacity to implement standards of process,
performance or results is very limited.13 Reading scores as measured by National
Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) have remained virtually unchanged over
nearly forty years (286 in 2008 versus 285 in 1971 for Seniors, 260 in 2008 versus 255 in
1971 for 8th Graders and 220 in 2008 versus 208 in 1971 for 4th Graders).14 While the
reading performance gap between majority and minority groups has closed materially
since 1971, there remains an approximately 10% gap that has been stable for some
twenty years since 1988.15
The US is a highly diverse country and that is reflected in its student population. This
diversity is measurable on many vectors: income, wealth, socio-economic status,
race/ethnicity, religion, family structure, health, language, behavioral norms, etc.16 It is
not surprising that different sub-cultures within the whole should show different aptitudes
for different skills, professions, life-styles, etc.
© Through the Magic Door 12
U.S. citizens, particularly those in urban environments, usually have a comparatively
significant degree of educational freedom (compared to most other countries), choosing
from public schools (and within public schools sometimes having the option of charter or
magnet schools), private schools, religious schools and home-schooling. Great diversity
with real freedom of choice ensures that there is likely to be large variances in outcomes.
And that is what we find. Children enter grade school with already well established
differences in language, reading and learning preparedness varying by factors of two or
three in test score.17 In terms of reading capabilities, children beginning school
demonstrate a reading range of as much as five years (first graders reading at a pre-
school level all the way to a third grade reading level).18 These initial differences are
substantially the consequence of the personal attributes of individual children amplified
by their familial circumstances (family structure, parenting practices, primary language,
social economic status (SES), parental education levels, behavioral attributes, family
values, etc.)19 and the cultural values of their home environment.20
In fact, as documented by Susan B. Neuman, children beginning kindergarten show a
material difference in capacity from the very beginning depending upon their social
economic status (SES).21
Figure IV - Beginning Differentials
Capability Lowest SES Highest SES
Ability to recognize letters of alphabet 39% 85%
Ability to identify beginning sounds of words 10% 51%
Identifies primary colors 69% 90%
Counts to 20 48% 68%
Writes own name 54% 75%
Amount of time having been read to prior to 25 hours 1,000 hours
Accumulated experience with words 13 million 45 million
In terms of language exposure and acquisition, the Hart & Risley studies have
documented that children from highly communicative families arrive at school having
cumulatively heard more than three times the volume of words spoken interactively (45
million words versus 13 millions words) than those from more taciturn families.
Language exposure is in turn tightly correlated with language acquisition which in turn is
highly correlated with academic results.23 Those that had heard more words performed
better academically than those that had heard fewer words and this initial academic
performance gap remained in place as the children progressed through the grades.
As a consequence of this fact of American diversity, schools then must work across this
diversity of starting points in order to impart the desired skills, knowledge and values
expected of their students.24 While international comparisons are always fraught with
establishing true comparability, the US usually places somewhere in the middle of the
© Through the Magic Door 13
pack with regard to measured outcomes.25 This may seem a pretty pedestrian
performance, but it is actually a significant accomplishment given the diversity of the
American student body: teachers having to address the disparate needs of children from a
kaleidoscope of family circumstances.26
If the purpose of an education is to achieve, in the space of eighteen years, some agreed
modicum of knowledge, skills, and values and to achieve this for the full population, then
we have in the US a mixed report card. Despite having a substantially more
heterogeneous population (with children starting from dramatically different points of
learning readiness, and the attendant requirement to address different needs in different
fashions) than most of our OECD peers, the US still manages to achieve a middle of the
league ranking for elementary and high school education results but at a substantially
higher cost per student than most countries.27 We do, however, then send a greater
proportion of children on to higher education and our leading colleges and universities
dominate the pack in virtually all global rankings.28 The nature and structure of our
education system, one might conclude, does a decent job of achieving global excellence
for a small portion of the population (graduates of the top 100 universities), better serves
the higher educational needs of a large percentage of the population (the 30% that
graduate from college) 29 but does a poor job of equipping those that graduate only from
high-school and a disastrous job of serving those that fail to graduate high-school (30%
of the US population still fails to graduate from high school on time or at all.)30
It is also worth noting, that in the huge variety of elementary and high school experiences
in the US, there are very large numbers of truly exceptional private and public schools
and even whole school systems, equal to and exceeding the best anywhere else. The
corresponding truth is that there are also some truly abysmal schools and school systems
performing far worse than might be experienced in most of the rest of the OECD.
Given that results from existing school-based efforts have remained static, we believe it is
time to re-examine what might be done differently. Specifically, whether there is
anything that might be done in terms of family behaviors that would allow material
improvements in educational outcomes and open more opportunities to all students and
especially the least advantaged.
The argument that we advance is that efforts to date have been overly focused on
education as a product of efforts in the schooling system, while substantially ignoring the
other two components of influence on a young person’s life, the family and the child’s
network of friends. There are clearly some approaches towards reading that can be
achieved through effective programs targeted at the social dimension of reading but that
is beyond the scope of this paper. We are here focusing solely on those actions that can
be taken in the context of the environment in which children spend the preponderance of
their hours from birth to eighteen years of age; the family home environment.
Children still spend the majority of their time in the home environment with family (65%
as opposed to 20% in school and 15% in a social context) and this is so at all age levels
from 6 to 17.31
© Through the Magic Door 14
Figure V - Sources of Influence on a Child by Time Spent
The proportion of time spent in these three environments does vary to a degree by age of
child (e.g. an infant spends more time with family than a teenager) and by circumstance
(home structure, urban vs. rural, income, etc.).33 No matter how you analyze it though,
family is the incubator in which a child’s character and attributes are most materially
formed and also determines the values and some of the personal behaviors that a child
then brings to the school environment.
While everyone acknowledges the fact that the family and home environment are critical
contributors to the educational process, the overwhelming majority of research is actually
invested in the relatively minor amount of time that is spent in the classroom or school in
an effort to determine what actions teachers and the school system might take to improve
The research situation is further exacerbated by the fact that most of the research being
done is not only focused on public schools but is further focused substantially on the
most distressed schools (serving the poorest students) and often on smaller groups within
that (issues of bilingualism, ethnicity, and issues of individual circumstance). It is
comprehensible that there is the desire to make things better and, therefore, to focus on
the neediest cases. Unfortunately, there is consequently relatively little information
available regarding what are the actual activities undertaken by parents and teachers that
foster exceptional outcomes. Correspondingly, there is little research on exceptional
readers and the characteristics that have allowed them to become so.
© Through the Magic Door 15
It is our argument that the best academic outcomes are achieved when the values, goals
and activities of the three main influencers, (family, school, friends) are in the greatest
alignment with one another.34 The worst outcomes are achieved when the three
components are not individually effective and/or when their respective goals are not
aligned with one another.
We believe the family component to be especially critical, not only because the greatest
amount of time is spent in that environment, but because it is the source of influence with
the longest duration and the greatest probability of consistency over time. In schools,
children can expect, and usually do experience, significant variation in effectiveness and
philosophical orientation among teachers and across elementary, middle and high
It is important to be clear that we are not proposing that families substitute for teachers or
vice versa. We are simply drawing the distinction that schools can be very effective in
teaching the skill of reading, but the degree to which that skilled is exercised is
substantially a function of the family providing the inspiration and desire to read.
Both schools and families are critical to reading and, to the degree that they reinforce one
another, the child benefits exponentially.35 To the degree that both fail, the child is
burdened with exceptional barriers to living a life filled with good choices. Schools do
an adequate job of equipping children with the skill of reading such that, using common
international definitions of literacy, 99% of the population is literate.36 It is the love of
reading and the lifelong habit of reading which is often missing. It would seem
unreasonable to look to schools to be able to build that love.
It is our supposition that families are best positioned to help create core values, develop
and enhance preferred personal attributes and to provide some core foundation of
knowledge. Correspondingly, it would be anticipated that schools are best positioned for
providing a range of skill development, experiences and a more extended knowledge
base. While the health and results of the home-schooling movement indicates that much
or all of an expected education experience can be fulfilled within a family environment, it
is hard to see how the successful experience of a million or so highly motivated families
can be extended to fifty million families with widely disparate circumstances.
Much less would we expect that schools can substitute for healthy and effective families.
We would argue that the past fifty years have been an exercise in trying to find the limits
in the capacity of schools to make up for deficiencies in home environments and that we
have learned that there are, indeed, very real limits. The success of schools in imparting
knowledge, skills and values is circumscribed by the health of the family environments to
which children return at 3pm every day. All three sources of educational influence
(families, school, and social) are pertinent. Typically family plays a supportive role to
school in creating a predisposition towards acquiring various skills and knowledge in the
© Through the Magic Door 16
This fact explains why, despite spending some $631 billion a year on elementary and
high school education, we still have no good answers for what methods of teaching are
the most reliable in terms of producing the desired educational outcomes.37 We have, in
the past seventy years, doubled the percentage of the national GDP that we spend on
primary and high school education (from 2.3% to 4.6%). Because of real growth in the
national economy, this means that we have nearly tripled the amount of real dollars spent
per student with statistically insignificant improvements in outcomes.38 Surprisingly, we
still don’t even have very good measures for determining exactly what outcomes we are,
in fact, producing.
From these facts, we conclude that schools are doing an adequate job (effective but not
efficient) of teaching children to read but that simply having the skill to read is
insufficient to life success. We also conclude that the nexus of focus for imparting the
will to read is within the family.
If the family is the source of greatest sustained influence based on exposure, duration,
and consistency, what are the things that families can do to best prepare a child in order
to take the greatest advantage of whatever opportunity is available for education through
the school systems?
It is our contention that the single thing that families can do that will have the greatest
impact on sustained academic performance, is to foster a reading culture. This would
include activities in the home that lay the groundwork for that first huge intellectual leap
from incoherence to spoken language then from language to reading. Principally we are
focused on those actions that also create the platform for sustained reading as a lifetime
habit. The assumption is that if children can remain engaged in the intellectual activity of
reading then they are predisposed to continue to further their broader intellectual
activities in the school environment. It is correspondingly assumed that if reading is a
fundamental aspect of the behavior and activities of the family, then it is likely that the
child will not fall into the prevalent condition of alliteracy.
Education is a cumulative process in which newly acquired skills create or allow the
absorption of new knowledge which in turn allows the capacity to develop further
skills.39 The foundation lies with the acquisition of language followed by the
development of the skill of reading; the capacity to convert visual representations of
speech from symbols into sounds, words, and ultimately the communication of ideas. As
the foundation of reading is established, it is then further fueled by content, i.e.
knowledge gleaned from reading gives context that puts ever more difficult texts within
reach in a virtuous cycle.40
There are arguments regarding how much education should be focused upon filling
children up with knowledge (content) versus the degree to which the purpose of
education should be to teach them to think (process). Both content and process are
critical and a deficit in one cripples the other.41 In regards to reading, the dichotomy
between content and process is somewhat of a red herring. Enthusiastic reading leads to
© Through the Magic Door 17
more and better reading which fosters both the acquisition of knowledge and the
refinement of critical thinking.
The nature of reading perforce requires a set of attributes and capabilities that are built or
reinforced by reading but which are also foundations for other competencies such as
numeracy, quantification, estimation, and probabilities.
The goal of this paper is to equip parents with those recommended actions which field
research demonstrates have a positive impact on the probability that a child will become a
habitual and enthusiastic reader. While the statics (participation, volume and
concentration) that have already been discussed all show a steady decline from infancy to
graduation, it is important to acknowledge that some part of this is an inevitable
consequence of children growing up, becoming interested in other activities and pursuits,
and having to devote more of their time to other activities and responsibilities such as
Elementary school children read more than middle school children who in turn read more
than high schoolers who in turn read more than seniors in university.42 The volume of
reading stabilizes after one’s mid-twenties and remains relatively steady until old age.
The end goal is not necessarily to arrest the decline but to ensure that regardless of the
decline, it does not translate into alliteracy and only intermittent reading.
Among those that do read, the average graduating high school senior has only read six
books voluntarily in the prior year. There are clear stages in a child’s development, when
they are at particular risk of becoming non-participants in reading. Traditional crisis
points include the transition from being read-to to independent reading; middle school
years when increasing autonomy allows for greater participation in other activities that
put demands on ones time, and finally the transition point from formal education to
career. This pattern of disengagement from voluntary reading has been a steady plague
over the decades.
Figure VI - Risk Points for Abandoning Reading
Can read but Distraction of
activities, Distraction of
not in the career and
habit of school work,
hobbies, early family
5 10 15 20 25
Age in Years
Developing Reader Young Adult Reader
© Through the Magic Door 18
Chapter III: A Family Based Approach to Reading
This section proposes an approach to support families in creating the circumstances that
increase the prospects of a child’s becoming an enthusiastic and habitual reader. This
approach, Growing a Reading Culture, is based on specific findings from the body of
academic research performed over the past seventy years, along with input from current
reading practitioners. It is framed to anticipate family circumstances (time constraints,
income limits, skill issues, etc.) and also to be adaptable to multiple contexts.
The approach of this paper is one grounded in naturalism rather than teleologistic
philosophy. We are seeking to identify what actually does work rather than what ought
As part of our approach, we distinguish between the capacity to do something (for
example having the capacity to read, i.e. being literate) and the actual practice of that
thing (for example, actually demonstrating habitual and enthusiastic reading as measured
by books read, hours spent reading, etc.).
Our focus is on activities done within the family rather than on activities within the
school for reasons outlined in Chapter II.
Our approach is modular. The greatest impact is achieved when all activities are
implemented but none are entirely contingent on the others. Individuals can easily
achieve many elements of the plan with material measurable benefit and without having
to do everything, should personal circumstances preclude that.
Differences in any field of performance are normally, in the US, examined primarily
through the lens of race. Subject to the limitations that afflict all such comparisons, it
would not seem that there are very material differences in rates of participation in reading
between the US and other OECD countries or between rates of enthusiastic reading and
other countries. Interestingly, those other countries usually seek to explain differences
through their own lenses; in the UK differences in reading enthusiasm are usually
explained in terms of class or social economic status, in Israel in terms of ethnic culture,
etc. The elements of reading culture identified in Growing a Reading Culture are not
unique to a culture or class or race or ethnicity. They are the practices demonstrated to
achieve the desired outcome of habitual and enthusiastic reading.
Learning to read is a process of exceptions. For every rule there are gaping holes where
that rule does not apply.
Unlike medicine or agriculture, where a treatment may actually be isolated as a
variable, and clear causal relations can be uncovered in controlled experiments,
education is by nature a collection of many, variously interacting variables
(Berliner, 2002; Bullock, 200; Maxwell, 2004; Olson, 2004). In education, there
is not a simple causal line between teaching and learning. This is why Berliner
© Through the Magic Door 19
(2002) describes educational research as, in fact, the “hardest science of all,”
meaning that it is the most difficult to research. He cites three factors that bedevil
researchers: (1) the dynamic and complex contexts in which teaching and learning
operate; (2) the ubiquity of interactions in a classroom among a host of variables
in the student, the teacher, and the materials (to name just three sites of variation);
and (3) the shifts in the social and knowledge environment that can invalidate
earlier research findings (e.g. behaviorist models of learning were replaced with
constructivist models when new information about learning became available).
Put another way, when experimental studies control out factors, the findings do
not map well onto the messy, real-world classrooms of teachers who might want
to apply the lessons of research to improve students learning.43
In other words, whether learning or teaching, you don’t know what you are going to start
with; you don’t know how the pieces will interact; and you don’t know what causes
differences day to day. Other than that, it is pretty straightforward.44
If you are a parent with a young child and you wish to know what are the actions you can
undertake in the home environment that will increase the probability that your child will
do well academically and will be afforded better life choices (and will make better
choices), then there is little rigorous information available to guide your actions. It is to
address that gap that we have conducted this research
Growing a Reading Culture has been developed from a meta-analysis of academic
research carried out to identify which practices have a statistically demonstrable positive
impact on reading capabilities. The focus has been on identifying general practices that
can be implemented in the home and are likely to have a long term impact. Specifically
omitted are pedagogical techniques that are assumed to be the province of schools. This
meta-analysis has been supplemented with the direct experience of a large number of
non-academic individuals intimately involved in helping foster a love of and the habit of
reading among children: teachers, librarians, reading coaches, literacy advocates, etc.45
The approach has been developed with several parameters in mind.
• In order to be deployed extensively, it must be reasonably self-explanatory and
• It must fit within the time constraints of over-scheduled families.
• It must be able to be implemented with the least requirement of additional family
• It must address the real-world variety of American family circumstances.
• It must be complimentary to and supportive of effective school literacy efforts.
Following are the individual activities that have been identified from the literature and
from the field as the activities that have the greatest impact on the probability that a child
will become an effective, enthusiastic and habitual reader. The first five activities are far
and away the most critical.
© Through the Magic Door 20
1. Talk a Lot46
2. Read to Them47
3. Be Seen Reading48
4. Give them the Power of Choice49
5. Have Books Everywhere50
6. Remember, Variety is the Spice of Life51
7. Don’t Rush52
8. Make it Personal53
9. Offer Quiet Places54
10. Establish Reading Routines55
11. Celebrate Books56
12. Indulge Serendipity
13. Discuss Ideas During Meals
Growing a Reading Culture has detailed guidelines behind each of these activities
(specific tactics for executing, ages to which they are most relevant, barriers most
frequently encountered, etc.) and which can be used in a multitude of fashions to meet the
needs of virtually any group of parents seeking to grow a reading culture in their family
Each of these thirteen categories is outlined in some detail below. Appendix D provides
90 specific tactical activities within these thirteen categories and gives a description,
identifies at which ages the tactical activities are most relevant, provides the rationale for
the activity and links each tactical activity back to the thirteen categories to which they
are relevant. Appendix F provides a list of interventions to address commonly identified
barriers to growing a reading culture and again links these interventions back to the
thirteen categories to which they are most relevant.
A Description and discussion of the thirteen most critical categories of behaviors and
activities which are necessary to creating a reading culture and are likely to create the
environment in which a child becomes a habitual and enthusiastic reader follows.
Remember, the end goal is that children should be motivated to read. Help them
persevere over the small bumps in the road. Be alert to needing to change tactics as
individual circumstances dictate.
Talk a Lot
One of the single best predictors of a child’s reading capability on entering kindergarten
is simply the volume of words they have heard in their life to that date. That volume is
also a reliable predictor of their academic performance in later grades.
The talking must be between a real human and the child (i.e. hearing words uni-
directionally from radio or TV does not have the same effect.)
© Through the Magic Door 21
The nature of the talking can include everything from mimicking sounds in the earliest
years to inquisitorial dialogue (where’s the red dress?), to recitation of short poems, to
singing, to structured story-telling, to jokes and riddles, etc. It usually is characterized by
an open-endedness that invites call, response and continuation.
The Hart and Risley studies indicated not only that there is a simple difference in volume
of talking that occurs within families but also that there is also a difference in the nature
of that talking. As discussed above, children from talkative families were exposed to
three times the volume of talk as children from less communicative families.
Interestingly, there was also a difference in the nature of that talk. In the communicative
families, children were hearing 32 encouraging statements for every 5 prohibitory
statements (per hour of talk). In the less communicative families this ratio was inverted
with 11 prohibitory statements for every 5 encouragements.57
The more exposure children have to talking the more they become accustomed to the
structure and rhythm of speech, to vocabulary, to conventions of storytelling, etc. This
familiarity with facts, details and conventions of speech facilitates the journey into
reading. The child already knows to look for those patterns of communication in the
written word with which they are already familiar in the spoken word.
Read to Them58
The second strongest predictor of a child’s reading capability and habits is the extent to
which a child is routinely read to during their early years.
It is never too early to start reading to a child though most parents find that it is not till
the baby is about six months old that it becomes at all practical to do so on a routine
In their earliest years the parent is solely reading to a child but as the child grows and
becomes more aware of text on pages, straight reading may be leavened with queries or
pointing out recognizable words. Still later, as a child becomes more familiar with words
and text, they may become eager to start sharing the reading of a book, often alternating
sentences, paragraphs or pages.
Most children will remain happy to be read to until they are at least eight and sometimes
as late as eleven or twelve. At some point though, they become independent readers and
the baton of reading is passed from parent to child.
Reading with a child involves a certain level of intuitiveness. If a child is unfocused,
make sure that they are comfortable in the first place. If they still are not focusing, try a
different book. If a child is still disengaged, try reading at a different time. Start with
short texts with clear contrast between words and background, large print, bright colors,
© Through the Magic Door 22
etc. Try lots of styles of books: wordless books, books with few words and lots of
pictures, illustrated poetry, heavily illustrated picture books, etc.
Picking books for another person is a hit-and-miss exercise under the best of
circumstances. When a child is very young and they do not yet know their own interests
and predilections, it is all the more challenging. It is in these earliest years when a library
is most especially helpful so that you can check out large volumes of different types of
books in order find something that captures their imagination. Don’t belabor a book they
are not interested in.
With young children, focus on the pleasure of the reading session more than on the
details of the reading. If a child’s attention begins to flag, feel free to skip sections or to
skip to the end of the story.
As your child builds the capacity to sit still and focus, slowly begin expanding their
reading fare into longer and then more complex stories.
One of the distinguishing features in these early years of reading is the tendency of
children to occasionally become fixated on a single book. They will frequently desire
that it be read and reread to them many times sequentially. While this can become
tedious to a reader, to the child it is a matter of familiarizing themselves with a strange
concept; they are locking in a knowledge and confidence in their knowledge of a book.
Frustrating as this might be to a reading parent, it is an important stage that needs to be
One reason that sustained and voluminous reading is correlated to later accomplishments
is probably owing to evidence regarding expertise development. There are indicative
studies that expertise is contingent, in part, on sustained practice.59 Whether it is sports,
music, chess, medicine, or mathematics, it appears that, regardless of starting native
talent and proclivity, final achievement as among the most expert in the field is
substantially correlated to amount of time spent practicing. This is sometimes referred to
as the 10,000 hour rule based on early studies from the field of music, that to accomplish
the highest levels of performance always requires at least 10,000 hours of practice.60 The
picture seems to be more complicated than that and the benchmark number seems to vary
by domain of expertise but all of these studies do seem to support that final capability is
significantly contingent upon 1) motivation and 2) hours spent. This is relevant to
Growing a Reading Culture because frequent reading to a child (as long as it is a
positive experience) both reinforces the motivation to read and builds those hours of
reading practice which likely create and reinforce a high degree of reading capability.
Access to books is the third most critical predictor of future reading habits. Children
from low income homes with large numbers of books score better in reading than
children from wealthy homes with few books. To some degree this is simply a function
© Through the Magic Door 23
of numbers. A child surrounded on all sides by books has a much higher probability of
finding one that appeals to him. The more likely they are to connect with books that
they enjoy, the more likely they are to keep reading.
Ideally, circumstances are such that large numbers of books can be purchased (every
child ends up with favorites). If budgets do not permit that, then periodic stocking up at
the library (whether public library or school library) can serve the same purpose.
Reading materials beyond books are useful as well. Newspapers, magazines, comic
books: all are grist to the mill.
The important thing is for there to be plenty of books and for them to be easily accessible.
Books in every room, books within physical reach of a child, etc.
Give them the power of choice
Giving children the power of choosing the books they read does not receive all that much
attention in the press but it is one of the most consistently reported factors that shows up
in the research as a predictor of children becoming enthusiastic and habitual readers.
In a study of readers across 32 countries, trying to identify those factors most predictive
of good reading capabilities, Postlethwaite and Ross found that free reading (where
children pick the books they wish to read) at home was the second most predictive factor
(out of 150 identified) of overall school effectiveness in reading.61 Where children have
the greatest freedom of choosing what they wish to read, the better readers they become.
As children find books which they enjoy, they are inclined to read more. As they read
more, they become more familiar with the techniques and practices of reading. The more
comfortable they become in reading, the wider the selection of books they can read and
are willing to read. The wider the selection, the more likely they are to find yet further
books that appeal to them.
The sand in this virtuous cycle is simple; poor choice.
From a parent’s point of view, are they likely to consistently choose books which we
believe to be worthwhile in terms of values, knowledge, aesthetics, etc.? The answer is
almost uniformly – No! Periodically they will choose books that are below their reading
level. Occasionally they will choose books that deal with subjects for which we believe
them to be unready or which we deem inappropriate. Quite often they will choose books
that are of indubitably low aesthetic quality.
True as all that might be, the link is demonstrably strong – children who have a wider
range of choice read more habitually, read more enthusiastically, and read more
effectively. It is also true that children that read more enthusiastically show a marked
trend for reading up. While they may move back and forth between easier books and
© Through the Magic Door 24
harder books, their overall trend line is upwards in terms of length, complexity and
quality of book.
One of the frequently identified culprits underlying the low level of boys reading is that
schools (class room libraries as well as the school library) tend to do a relatively poor job
of stocking the types of books boys tend to enjoy (action, plot driven, non-fiction, basic
humor, etc.). The hypothesis, for which there is some supporting evidence, is that boys,
while capable of reading, simply choose not to do so because they do not have access to
the types of books they enjoy.
The general guidelines for providing children choice are:
• Make sure there are books a couple of years above and below their age reading
• Make sure there is variety in format: board books, paperbacks, comic books,
newspapers, magazines, hardbacks, audio.
• Provide a range of genres at any given age level
• Provide a range of quality such as (in terms of magazines) Reader’s Digest, Time,
and The Economist.
• Ensure that there are some likely series books
• Make sure there is something available from the fringes.
While parents may have little control over the quality of books to which children are
exposed to by their friends and in the classroom, you have entire control within the home.
The basic books to which they have access in the house are ultimately up to you and
while you may give them a range of choice, you determine what are the final boundaries.
It is indisputably a difficult balancing act to keep enticing them with books in which they
are interested while staying within the parameters of appropriate values, taste, etc.;
particularly when they are exposed to very heterogeneous ranges at school and through
their friends. The danger to be averted is of driving them away from reading by being too
restrictive of what they read.
See Choosing Books for Your Children on SlideShare for an expanded discussion on
this challenging activity.
Be seen reading
One of the most frequently overlooked actions which has a very high impact on whether
children become enthusiastic and habitual readers is the simple issue of whether they see
adults in their life reading. Field studies in the home and the classroom consistently
demonstrate that children read more when they see adults (teachers or parents) reading.
We can say reading is important all we want but if our own actions do not match our
words, children quickly draw the obvious conclusion – what is important is what actually
© Through the Magic Door 25
The normal methods of letting children see that reading is important to you are:
• Have some routine of reading (the newspaper, magazines or a book before leaving
for work or when returning in the evening).
• Having a place where you can be seen reading; a favorite chair, in bed, etc.
• Physical evidence of reading: books by the bedside, books in the briefcase, books
in the house, books in your car.
Children wish to be adults long before they understand what that entails. They want to be
you – powerful, in control, knowledgeable. They want to do what you do – pay for
things, drive, handle dangerous equipment, and yes, read. If you are seen reading by
them, they are likely to be readers themselves.
Variety is the spice of life
Closely related to Give Them the Power of Choice is Variety. Children don’t know what
they don’t know. They are dependent on you introducing them to the world of the
spoken and written word. It is tempting to show them just what we loved, our favorite
books, but every child comes with their own unique proclivities and life circumstances.
It may have been the Hardy Boys for you but it is Louis L’Armour for them. You may
have loved poetry, they love non-fiction. You may have cut your teeth on Treasure
Island they may take to Pippi Longstocking. While we can and should seek to steer
them through the wild waters of reading, it is important for them to have the variety that
will let them make their own path.
Variety comes in any number of categories; we propose six forms: existential form,
material form, purpose, genre, style and issues.
Existential form – The spoken word in all its varieties; monologue, dialogue,
singing, story-telling, reading out loud, etc. The written word also has its
manifold forms, the obvious ones being newspapers, magazines, comic books,
manga, big books, small books, trick books, instruction manuals, reference books,
etc. Where do you find stories written? Even paintings can be viewed as a story
captured and waiting to be “read”.
Material form – Little children like books they can easily handle, i.e. smaller
books. They tend to like bright colors and shorter, clear printed texts. Older
children tend to prefer books that are easy to carry around. Sometimes they prefer
to have books that are obvious, such as large hardbacks (they want to be seen by
their peers as reading a particular book). In terms of material form, you have
abridged and non-abridged books, paperbacks, hard backs, board books, and
audio books. We are now on the cusp of having electronic books. An additional
consideration is the extent and nature of illustration in the book.
© Through the Magic Door 26
Purpose – Why is your child wanting to read a particular story or why do you
want them to read a particular story? Some of the considerations include:
Literary esthetics, entertainment, social appeal, relevance, durability, values,
awareness, knowledge, escape, and solace. Each of these categories warrants a
discussion. Suffice to say that there are many legitimate motivations for reading
and most of them have relevance at some point in a particular person’s reading
career. The important thing is for a child to be aware of the range of choices and
to have good titles accessible at the time they become interested.
Genre – Some of the most commonly identified genres are adventure, art books,
biographies, fairy tales, fantasy, historical fiction, history, humor, literary fiction,
mysteries, myths and legends, plays, poetry, romances, scary stories, science,
science fiction, and series books. Young children tend to gravitate towards
poetry, myths and legends, and fairy tales. Independent readers tend towards
adventure, series books, biographies, humor, scary stories, historical fiction,
fantasy, romances, and science fiction. Older readers tend to prefer art books,
mysteries, history, fantasy, science, and science fiction.
Issues – Some of the considerations here include how realistic is the writing, to
what degree is your child likely to identify with the protagonist and their
circumstances, to what extent does the book conform to your expected world view
(multi-culturalism, environmentalism, etc.), to what degree is the story “relevant”,
to what degree does the book provide a foundation of residual critical cultural
knowledge, and to what degree does the story or book reflect values which you
might wish your child to emulate.
Style – Every author and every book has some distinct style usually shaped by
writing style, plot, use of language, character development, descriptive
capabilities, etc. Every child and person develops a propensity towards some set
of writing styles. Some prefer plot over character development, others prefer
language use to description. As children move from being read to, to becoming
independent readers, you will be aware of their preferences. They frequently will
take to a particular author or to a particular series. Their comfort with the familiar
helps build their reading confidence.
All of these are considerations in picking out which books your child might like now as
well as which books they are likely to grow into.
Reading materials come in all shapes, sizes and packages. Introduce children to language
with talking, singing, poetry. Show them advertisements, help them read cooking
instructions, show them billboards, have newspapers around the house, magazines,
books, comics, etc. Find every wedge for them to discover the magic of the written word.
Show them an old family bible with their grandparent’s handwriting. Their great-
grandfather’s service citations on the wall tell a story. Their grandmother’s letters to her
daughter in college are a written link backwards into time.
© Through the Magic Door 27
All these are examples of the magic of the written word in the lives of children. They are
figuring things out and they can quickly figure out that words, spoken and written, are
one of the most important keys they will ever carry. The more examples of this there are,
the quicker they figure it out.
This is an especially critical issue, particularly in America where individual attainment
and the competitive instinct are so strong. Finnish school children, consistently among
the best readers in international rankings, do not begin to receive formal instruction in
reading until they are seven years old.
There is a strong inclination to associate intelligence with early reading and therefore to
try and hurry the process along. This overlooks the very broad range of progression
demonstrated by children. There is a very loose correlation between early reading and IQ
but it is weak and not especially predictive. A large percentage of children who turn out
to be gifted are not early readers and some children who are early readers do not turn out
to be gifted as traditionally measured by IQ.62
Effective reading is far more closely related to the activities laid out here in Growing a
Reading Culture, particularly the first five factors (talking, reading to them, being seen
to read, books everywhere, and giving them choice) than to either IQ or early reading.
The risk of a child becoming disaffected with reading by pushing them before they are
developmentally capable of absorbing reading or of pressing them to read what they are
unwilling or unable to read is far greater than any potential benefit to be gained from
them reading six months or a year earlier than they might at their own pace.
Make it personal
As mentioned earlier, the motivation to read is a paramount issue in ensuring that our
children do not fall off the reading wagon. This is part of the motivation of making
reading a fun and interesting adventure rather than an onerous task.
Another aspect of reading is not only the pleasure we derive from it but also the pleasure
with which we associate it. A child who has been held close in the crook of an arm while
hearing their parent’s voice reading a story, who has drifted to sleep on the sonorous
poem read by their parent, who has giggled and laughed through a funny story while
snuggled up close, has a foundation of security, intimacy and pleasure locked into the
concept of reading which will forever predispose them to the act of reading.
There is another aspect to making it personal beyond the routine of reading. As your
child grows and becomes capable of reading themselves, the back and forth of discussing
words, of critiquing books, of coaching them on meaning, of discussing pictures,
© Through the Magic Door 28
characters and storylines all build up a network of positive associations that link the act
or reading to a primal sense of well being.
Later yet, when your child is an independent reader, and as a young teenager there is a
final tie of respect that can be built. Asking to read some of their books that look good,
asking their opinion of a story, offering a book you have read that is clearly an adult book
speaks of a trust and confidence that again lays a foundation in their psyche that will
support their own reading life.
Reading is a highly personal activity. There is no one that will ever know your child as
well as you do. There are teachers and librarians that will make good and great
suggestions as to what your child might like based on years of knowing many children
but you have a lifetime of knowing that one child. Your recommendations will always
have a place.
It is not a necessary requirement but field studies have shown that children, both at home
and at school, are inclined to read more when they have a comfortable quiet place to read.
There are some children that can flop down and lose themselves in a book no matter what
chaos abounds around them but others, particularly those that are still acquiring their
reading legs, can benefit from having a quiet place to which they can retire and read with
Children are pattern seeking machines. They want to know what the deal is, what are the
limits, what are the rules, what are the consequences. This curiosity and attempt to build
structure is one of the distinct aspects of childhood that can make it both such a joy and
frustration for a parent.
The most common reading routine is that of being read to (for younger children) at
bedtime or (for older children) being allowed to read themselves at bedtime. Other
routines include an infinite range of activities such as:
• Reading in the car while waiting to pick up siblings from school
• When at dinner, talking about books that have been read
• Having a bag of books always accessible for reading
• Pleasurable reading as a consequence (when a child has hurt a finger, when a
child is fretful, when a child is angry), etc.
A reading routine is any positive reading action that a child can anticipate based on time
© Through the Magic Door 29
In a study of readers across 32 countries, trying to identify those factors most predictive
of good reading capabilities, Postlethwaite and Ross found that parental support at home
was the most predictive factor of overall school effectiveness in reading.63
Across the world, students who have a positive view of reading are better readers than
their peers.64 Celebrating books is akin to the action Be Seen Reading but entails a
broader range of activities than simply being seen reading. It would include such
activities as requesting books for Christmas or birthday, looking forward to a favorite
author’s new release, being eager to discuss a meaningful book just completed, being
excited about some activity at the local library. It might include joyful things such as
playing games such as Charades based on books, or slipping a written joke into your
child’s lunchbox, e-mailing them articles or reviews, or treasuring a book given by
someone important to you.
As a child see’s you valuing books and reading, so will they likely value books and
The research is mixed on this point but seems indicative. Most children have an “Aha”
moment, like Helen Keller with her hands under the water pump, in which the meaning
and value and attractiveness of books suddenly becomes apparent to them.
Usually about 50% of children who are enthusiastic readers are able to identify a single
book that was a turning point for them. It is not necessarily a book that is their favorite
read but one that was in some way most significant to them. It was the right book at the
Often times it entails a character with whom they identify but it also includes books that
were especially visually affective or a book that had special meaning because of the
circumstances under which it was read or from whom it was received.
It is very difficult to engineer these events: they happen when they happen. The valuable
thing is to recognize that it has happened and to take advantage of the event.
If it is a series, get the rest of them. If it is an author with other titles, get them. If they
are books which you are not wild about, short of them being blatantly damaging, get
more. Whether they have taken a shine to comic books or cartoons or cookie-cutter
adventures – get more of them. Whatever has sparked the interest, the important
response is to fan the flame. Once the habit of reading is formed and their confidence is
established then you can focus more on directing where their reading ought to go but that
© Through the Magic Door 30
first spark can be a critical moment as to whether a child becomes a habitual reader or
Meals with discussions
The evidentiary basis for this proposition is also fragmented. There are no studies which
correlate reading results with shared meals. However, there are many studies that
correlate a routine of shared meals with better physical health, reduced obesity, greater
family stability, more conversation, improved social skills, etc. These factors are in turn,
directly correlated with the increased probability of the reading habit and reading
© Through the Magic Door 31
Chapter IV: Assumptions, Measurements, and Data Reliability
It is accepted as demonstrated fact (though we cite the research that underpins this
assumption) that enthusiastic and habitual reading is highly correlated not only with
academic success but also with wider markers of what are considered to be desirable life
outcomes: income, social status, employment, health, familial integrity, civic
involvement, etc. Enthusiastic, habitual readers are characterized by high productivity in
a wide range of endeavors, not necessarily just as measured by education and income.
In this paper we make the assumption that all parents are desirous that their children
should be capable by the time they graduate from high school of making considered
decisions and be equipped to effectively pursue activities based on those decisions that
allow them to achieve desirable life outcomes. As explained in Appendix B, we are
working with a model that assumes that a person’s capacity to effectively pursue those
activities are predicated upon Will, Values, Knowledge, Experience, History, Resources,
and awareness of Norms of Behavior.
In Appendix C we outline how and why habitual and enthusiastic reading is believed to
bolster critical capacities related to Will, Values, Knowledge, Experience, History,
Resources, and awareness of Norms of Behavior.
We recognize that there is a very wide range of starting points and of outcomes. Siblings
raised within the same positive reading culture will still demonstrate variable outcomes
based on personal circumstances and proclivities. The range of enthusiasm (number of
books read or hours spent reading) may vary significantly within a sibling group but it
will be higher than otherwise. Given the variability of individuals, no approach can
guarantee measured outcomes for every individual within a population but it should
improve the probability of those outcomes and certainly must be able to demonstrate
measured improvement for the average of all participants.
As described in Chapter 2, t is our belief that there is a natural but permeable intersection
between the capacities of schools and the capacities of families. Specifically, schools are
better equipped to impart the skill of reading than might necessarily be the case for the
average family. Correspondingly, families are better equipped to impart the will to read
than the average school. It is recognized that this is not uniformly the case but we believe
it represents an adequate model of reality. We therefore treat the onus of providing the
skills of reading as being upon schools and the onus for creating the will to read as being
© Through the Magic Door 32
Figure VII - Different Ways to Assess the Reading Problem
As Figure VII indicates, the degree to which there is considered to be a problem with
reading is substantially determined by the frame of reference and terms used. If we are
speaking of simple illiteracy, the literal incapacity to read, then the problem, while grave
to the individuals affected, is a relatively small one. Most studies indicate that using a
strict definition of illiteracy yields a figure of approximately 5% of the population as
being illiterate (using the common international definition, of having completed
education to at least the 5th grade level, then the US , as with most OECD countries, has a
1% or less illiteracy rate). Even using the softer term of functional illiteracy by which
people are acknowledged to have decoding skills but find it challenging to interpret more
than basic texts, you are usually not speaking of more than 10% of the population. Very
much an issue for the individuals involved, but even being generous with the numbers,
not a societally debilitating one.
The most alarming claims for the decline in book reading are usually tied to a much
narrower definition of reading, sometimes the focus being on voluntary literary reading
(literary fiction, poetry, plays) versus all other types of books or sometimes focusing on
“serious reading” (literary reading plus non-fiction) versus popular reading such as
newspapers, magazines, romances, cookbooks, westerns, mysteries, etc. These alarming
reports are not really about reading rates per se but rather are judgments regarding the
value of different types of texts. It is our assumption that the core issue is participation
and concentration. Regardless of what types of texts people are reading at a given point
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in their reading evolution, as long as they are reading habitually and enthusiastically, they
are likely to 1) become increasingly fluent and effective readers, and 2) migrate to more
challenging texts as their reading fluency and effectiveness increases.
We believe that the issue confronting the US at this point in time is one of will rather than
skill. Changes in teaching methods and substantial increases in funding for primary and
secondary education in the past five decades have not materially changed reading scores
or measures of reading participation, enthusiasm or concentration. Targeted intervention
programs for addressing inequalities in early environmental circumstances such as Head
Start, typically show little impact beyond the immediate year. While it is conceivable
that further funding growth or changes in pedagogy might make a difference, there is no
historical track record that supports that conclusion and it would seem unlikely. We
conclude therefore that any improvements in reading participation and enthusiasm have
to be sought in the realm of will (the family culture) rather than in skill (school
Therefore, within the context of the US, we believe that reading outcomes are more
determined by cultural elements within the family than by circumstances of schools or on
income and other material factors. We recognize that this is not uniformly the case at the
level of the individual but do believe that the majority of children live in financial
circumstances that permit reading to be a much greater activity than it currently is, attend
schools that are capable of imparting the skills of reading (and at some schools the will to
read), and live in environments where books are reasonably accessible (public libraries as
distinguished from school libraries).
There are two additional assumptions for which there is only rather mixed evidence and
therefore, as commonsensical as they might seem, are not embedded in the design of
Growing a Reading Culture. If these assumptions are valid, it adds to the program but
their potential invalidity does not detract from it.
While it seems to make good sense that TV watching, video games and computer time
would be activities that displace and reduce the amount of time spent reading, this does
not seem to be the case if only examined by the numbers. Enthusiastic readers seem to
have reasonably similar TV watching, video game playing and computer habits as the
general population. Why this should be so is not immediately clear. It has been a steady
presumption for forty years or more that TV watching must be deleterious to reading but
there is no solid evidence to support that despite the expectation and the reasonably
proactive search to find such a link. It is true that there is a negative link among small
percentage that are the most extreme TV viewers but not among the run-of-the-mill
In fact, a number of studies indicate that those that are enthusiastic book readers are also
enthusiastic consumers of various forms of communication (TV, Internet, magazines,
newspapers, etc.).65 One reason that there appears to be a weak linkage between reading
and TV watching might be that the last fifty years have seen an increasing volume of
leisure time. With that increased leisure time, it is possible for both TV viewing and
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reading time to increase without the one displacing the other. On the other hand, it is also
true that annual household expenditures on books are down approximately 15% whereas
expenditures on various other forms of entertainment (admissions, audio-visual
equipment and services, etc.) are up 100-300% over the past quarter century.66
Contrary to the popular stereotype of enthusiastic readers being reclusive, anti-social
misanthropes, time usage studies of children do not throw up much evidence that
enthusiastic readers spend materially less time on the normal range of activities compared
to other children. They spend a few minutes less here and there but there is no major
discordance from the norm. In addition, various studies tend to show, most strongly
among adults but also among children, that enthusiastic readers are also enthusiastically
engaged with their community.67
Finally, while it might be assumed that higher IQs are associated with habitual and
enthusiastic reading, it is actually more complicated than it appears at first sight. Higher
IQs are definitely well correlated with higher reading scores in terms of comprehension,
interpretation, etc. There is also a correlation, though weaker, between high IQ and
habitual and enthusiastic reading. In fact, several of the core behaviors identified in
Growing a Reading Culture, such as Talk a Lot, Read to Them, and Books Everywhere,
are more highly correlated to a child becoming a habitual and enthusiastic reader than is
IQ. The net is that while children with a high IQ may be predisposed to becoming
habitual and enthusiastic readers, there is nothing preordained about it and many do not.
Likewise, children from within the normal deviation of standard IQ are fully capable of,
and do, become enthusiastic and habitual readers.
We have attempted to make this study as fact based as possible. All our
recommendations are backed by sourcing to original studies and data from the
government, from research institutions, data and research from commercial enterprises
and from our own original research. In addition, we have collected recommendations,
suggestions, and opinions from many individuals active in fields related to reading such
as parents, librarians, teachers, reading coaches, etc.
We have in general sought to use studies with large population sets (participants in the
thousands) versus small studies (participants in the dozens); studies that are longitudinal
in nature rather than a snapshot in time; studies that use observed data rather than self-
reported data, and studies that use hard measures rather than narrative descriptions.
There are exceptions. One example of such an exception would be the Hart & Risley
studies which cover a small population base but are notably comprehensive in data
volume and robustness.
Research conducted in the field of reading, (and that research goes back seventy years
and more), has been voluminous but often as capable of clouding the picture as clarifying
it. There are a number of reasons for this lack of data consistency and clarity. Reading is
studied from numerous vantage points including psychology, sociology, history,
education, linguistics, demography, literature, etc. Each of these disciplines are asking
slightly different questions and therefore, though they are dealing with the same subject,
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frequently use inconsistent measures and definitions which makes it very challenging to
aggregate knowledge across the fields. Because reading is also a business in which
corporations have a financial interest, a cause in which charities and foundations have a
donor interest, and a policy area in which government has an interest, most sponsored
studies also are geared towards certain pre-existing interests or assumptions; hence the
repeated alarm bells over time.
What we have attempted to do is identify key activities that can be reliably demonstrated
to cause enthusiastic and habitual reading. Proving statistical causation in the social
sciences is notoriously difficult and therefore, failing that, we have, with caveats, relied
on correlations, i.e. Activity X is associated with Reading Result Y, as long as there is a
logical causative consistency between the action and the result.
There is also a propensity to seek a silver bullet, a single cause that will solve “the
reading problem.” We believe that the solution is relatively straight-forward but that
there is no single silver bullet. Commonly prescribed silver bullets include: Free
Voluntary Reading in schools, parental evening reading, phonics, whole language, Head
Start, improved school funding, improved teacher training, better access to books, etc. In
special circumstances, most of these can show improvements in the short term. Virtually
all of them are incapable in isolation of showing sustained improvement over the long
term. Much research focuses on the effectiveness of individual bullets and rarely on a
comprehensive and holistic perspective on what factors help create habitual and
In an ideal world, there would be a study that would have looked at families that are
measurably “reading” families and would have identified those activities and behaviors
common among them that caused or increased the probability of children being
enthusiastic and habitual readers. Regrettably, no such study appears to ever have been
undertaken. Instead we have had to piece together the results from many different
studies, from many different parts of the country, from studies conducted at different
points in time over the past forty years in order to arrive at a reasonably complete picture
of what an effective reading family looks like and the behaviors and activities they
undertake that create a reading culture.
There has been sufficient data of a quality in which we are confident to allow us to
identify five key activities that have a robust causative relationship to enthusiastic and
habitual reading. These are 1) Talking a lot, 2) Reading to children, 3) Having many
books easily available, 4) Giving children choices in their reading, and 5) Parents being
seen to read. There are eight additional sets of activities where there is correlative
evidence or suggestive evidence (few studies but strong results). These additional
activities which appear contributive to a reading culture are 6) Provide variety in reading,
7) Don’t make reading a task to be rushed through, 8) Make reading personal, 9) Provide
quiet places for reading, 10) Establish reading routines, 11) Celebrate books, 12) Create
opportunities for chance reading, and 13) Establish a routine of talking at shared meals.
All of these activities are described in more detail in Chapter 3 and Appendix D.
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A central issue in developing the will to read is that of motivation. In American culture,
this is broadly, and we think correctly, interpreted as meaning that it is important for
reading to be enjoyable for children. The more they enjoy reading, the more they will
read. While this is probably broadly true in most instances in America, it is important to
acknowledge that there are other equally important motivations that may be more
important in other national cultures or within some families within the US. For example,
in families with strong hierarchies, reading in order to please parents may be just as
effective a source of motivation as reading for pleasure. In other circumstances, there
might be a social dimension to motivate reading; “I want to read because my friends are
reading.” Whatever the source of motivation might be; pleasure, duty, social affirmation,
one of the core tasks as a parent in growing a reading culture is to create the motivation to
It is acknowledged that there is an inferred family structure underpinning many of the
reading recommendations contained within Growing a Reading Culture. This is to some
extent unavoidable given the source data but it also reflects the core approach of this
research: look for what works. It is our belief that even families that do not share all the
inferred attributes (two parents, average income, urban/suburban residence, at least one
parent with some latitude of managing personal time, etc.) will still be able to adopt a
portion of the behaviors and activities that foster a reading culture. The issue of barriers
to a reading culture are addressed in Appendix F.
Most of the research available lacks the type of data which would most easily support our
goal of identifying best reading practices. In order to measure reading enthusiasm and
habit, for example, one would ideally measure number of hours spent reading and
frequency of reading. This data is simply not available to any meaningful degree and so
we use number of books read as a proxy while recognizing the limitations of that measure
(War and Peace is not equivalent to Lassie Come Home which is not equivalent to Mike
Listed below are some of the fundamental questions for which one would expect to have
readily available data but which does not in fact exist. Given the absence of any data or
the spottiness or inconsistency of data on most these questions, we have frequently had to
rely on inferences or reverse calculations to come up with proxy answers.
• How many books are read per year?
• How many books are in the average household?
• How many books are checked out from the library per family?
• How many hours are spent being read-to each week? Over how many sessions?
• How many hours are spent in independent reading?
• How many hours do parents spend reading for themselves?
• How accessible are books in the home?
• How many people are involved in reading-to children within a family?
• What role do family members and family friends play in reading?
• What other materials are incorporated in reading (magazines, newspapers, etc.)?
• How many hours of conversation is the child exposed to each week?
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• Are there special physical accommodations for reading (quiet times, quiet rooms,
reading lamps, etc.)?
• Are there any patterns of reading associated with book type (hardback versus
Reading concentration is a much more difficult number to track. Analysis of raw data
from a variety of sources appears to indicate that in the US, 10% of the population is
responsible for approximately 80% of books read (purchased or circulated from libraries).
It is worth noting that this is a significantly greater concentration of readership than, for
example, income where the top 10% of income earners are garnering 50% of total
national income.68 It is likely, though unproven, that these two factors are related.69
A habitual reader is one who consistently chooses to read books over time and frequently
sets a personal priority on reading above other optional discretionary activities. They
may or may not choose to read large numbers of books but they choose to read on a
routine basis. An enthusiastic reader is one characterized by the volume of reading that
Terms used in this paper:
Definition: The degree to which an individual chooses to read books (of any sort)
on an elective basis rather than being required to read books associated with their
studies or required as part of their work.
Measure: At least one book read electively within the past year.
Desired Outcome: 100% participation, i.e. everyone elects to read at least one
book per year.
Current Performance: 50% of the population reads no books electively in a given
Definition: The degree to which there is predictability in the routine of reading
with some minimum outcome independent of the individual’s reading skills and
Measure: Elective book reading occurring on a monthly basis.
Desired Outcome: 100% demonstrating habitual reading.
Current Performance: An estimated 30% of the population are habitual readers.
Definition: The volume of reading demonstrated.
Measure: Number of hours spent reading or number of books read.
Desired Outcome: At the high school level and above, at least 2.0 books read per
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Current Performance: 0.4 books read per month.
Definition: The degree to which the volume of reading is concentrated among
quartiles or deciles of readers.
Measure: Percent of books read by the top 10% of readers.
Desired Outcome: 20% (arbitrarily chosen).
Current Performance: 80%
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