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“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what then, is an empty desk?” — Albert Einstein

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eReaders and the iPad could well be the best house-cleaning appliances ever invented. All the clutter on your bookshelves, magazines and newspapers strewn everywhere, and even those ubiquitous household bills can all be swept under the eCarpet. Yes, even flyers, ads, and coupons, they are now online or in apps… and maps? Just bring your iPhone.

But wait, what’s with this study done by Dr. Mariah Evans, sociologist at the University of Nevada, Reno, recently published in the journal Research in Social Stratification and MobilityAccording to its abstract, the study found that:

Children growing up in homes with many books get 3 years more schooling than children from bookless homes, independent of their parents’ education, occupation, and class.

Together with her colleagues at the University of Nevada, UCLA and Australian National University, Evans studied 70,000 children in 27 countries over a span of 20 years, one of the largest and most comprehensive studies ever conducted on what influences the level of education a child will attain. The difference between a bookless home and a home with 500 books amounts to an average of 3.2 years of further education. In China, the difference is 6.6 years.

As a sociologist, Dr. Evans is concerned with helping children of rural communities in Nevada to achieve higher education. Regardless of parents’ socio-economic and educational levels, the number of books at home is the single most significant correlate of educational attainment.

I know what’s on your mind… how many families have more than 500 books in their home. Well the idea is, the more the better:

Even a little bit goes a long way,” in terms of the number of books in a home. Having as few as 20 books in the home still has a significant impact on propelling a child to a higher level of education, and the more books you add, the greater the benefit.

You get a lot of ‘bang for your book’,” she said. “It’s quite a good return-on-investment in a time of scarce resources.

In an interview which is available on MP3, Evans explains:

When you have very highly educated parents, you still get some result of additional books in the home. But you get much more of what you might call ‘bang for your book’ for parents who have little education.

So now, back to our house-cleaning issue. How would home literacy be affected if more and more books are being swept away and stored in electronic devices and less and less on our shelves and strewn on the floor? Can the neat and tidy Kindle or iPad have the same effects as a real home library or ‘literacy mess’ for a child? Can 500 books in the eReader influence a child as much as 500 books around the home? Just some thoughts for future research.

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You might ask what good do mere numbers do if you don’t use them. You can’t assume usage with presence, right? Well the question is, how can you use them if they are not around?  Evans claimed that just having them there, and watching a parent read a book is significant enough. If you’re caught reading a book, you are reading a book. But if you’re caught using an iPad, you may not be reading, you could be shopping, checking your stocks, or playing video games.

As for usage, electronic gadgets tend to promote individualized activities. The traditional ways of using books just might not be as compatible with these devices, like the cuddly moments of mother and child sharing a book at bedtime (see those teeth marks on the board books), the intimacy between book and reader, the appreciation and touch, the joy their aesthetics could bring, the picking up of a pen or pencil and marking and doodling around the pages, the practice of real life literacy activities with them, both personal and communal. And oh, the pleasure of browsing in a bookstore and the excitement of looting in a book sale.

Further, home literacy is more than just books. I was involved in an ethnographic study on language learning several years ago. I spent hours in several homes of young children, observing their literacy environment. My observations included materials that could foster language development. I noted, other than books, alphabet magnets on the fridge, newspapers, magazines, calendars, recipes, personal notes, notice boards, TV guides, shopping lists, food packaging, flyers, coupons, and ‘junk mails’, any print materials exposing a child to words and writing. One parent I observed had purposely placed newspapers in the bathroom, making the printed word more accessible to her child.  The rationale behind the study was that preschool children growing up in a home milieu rich in print materials are primed for language and literacy learning long before they even begin formal schooling.

With the arrivals of eBooks and eEverything else, printed matters are on the decline. Sure, it’s not all or nothing. Printed books will still be around.  But with eBook sales now surpassing hard copies at Amazon, the trend is obvious. eReaders and iPads are definitely ingenious and convenient devices, but how would home literacy change with these gadgets? And, how would we change as a human reader? It’s not about holding on to the archaic or being a Luddite, it’s all about our future, our very human future.

Of course, I’d appreciate a clean house. But hey, please don’t touch that pile. I know exactly where to find what under which. Thanks.

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*And, to satisfy your curiosity, how many families Evans found to have 500 or more books in their homes? In the U.S., 18%.

“Family scholarly culture and educational success: Books and schooling in 27 nations” by M. D. R. Evans, Jonathan Kelley, Joanna Sikora, and Donald J. Trelman. Published in Research In Social Stratification and Mobility, Volume 28, Issue 2, June 2010, Pages 171 – 197. Click Here to go to the article.

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