Commentary

Randy Hamilton: Passion no substitute for facts

June 17, 2014 

From Melissa Rooney’s June 11 column, “When parents can’t read,” she is clearly passionate about children learning to read, and certainly we need more advocates like her. However, when we write publicly about such things, we serve our audience better with facts than with false claims based only on observations from our own individual personal experience.

I am prompted to respond on seeing her citation of Bryce Courtenay (I had to look him up): “If you read one good book a month to your kids, you will do more for their education than the entire education system will achieve in 10 years.”

It sounds like one of those grandiose claims that one might make if he’s a little too fond of his own voice, but it is also a false claim, at least in the U.S. (It may be true in South Africa or Australia where Mr. Courtenay enjoyed dual citizenship.)

Years ago, the book “Freakonomics“ made a splash by upsetting our cherished notions about a number of things, including what does, and does not, matter in raising test scores of young children. Reading to your child is not one of the things that matter. Yet Ms. Rooney asserts her firm belief, “I’ve no doubt that, regardless of his/her race or socioeconomic status, when a developmentally normal child is persistently exposed to reading from an early age, particularly by their parents, that child cannot help but learn to read.”

In their book and in a USA Today article published in 2005, Dubner and Levitt (the “Freakonomics“ guys) cite the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study of 20,000 children, conducted by the U.S. Department of Education. Among many conclusions supported by data from that study, “the ECLS data show no correlation between a child’s test scores and how often his parents read to him.”

And, according to the ECLS, not only does reading to children not matter, socioeconomic status does matter. Highly educated parents, parents with high income, parents who speak English in the home and mothers who are 30 years or older when their children are born all correlate to higher test scores.

Another dubious claim of Ms. Rooney’s own devising, she is “convinced that playing (LeapFrog DVDs) for kindergarteners [sic] several times each week would improve their reading skills significantly.” It seems the only evidence for that assertion is her experience with her own children. Luckily, the ECLS shows no correlation between test scores and whether a child regularly watches TV at home. Whew!

Still, reading to one’s children surely does have benefits, for the child and parent alike, and parents who can’t read are an unfortunate problem in other ways. Just not in the way or to the degree that Ms. Rooney asserts: “If parents can’t or don’t read, it’s almost certain that their children will have problems reading. Indeed, it’s likely they will eventually read only on a rudimentary level – enough to get through life but not enough to reach their potential.”

According to the ECLS, these parents can help them in other ways. As it happens, merely having children’s books in the home correlates to higher test scores; having 50 books yields 5 percentile points higher than having no books, and 100 books add another 5 points beyond that. Being involved with the PTA also helps. But whether parents who can’t or don’t read have the resources or inclination to buy books and attend the PTA is another matter.

Perhaps it is true, as Ms. Rooney asserts, that “it is virtually taboo to consider the parents’ lack of education. Because when considering their lack of education, we must also consider their lack of opportunities – and facing that challenge would cost even more than funding public preschool.”

But what good does it do anyone to ignore the real problems and hang our hopes and resources on false notions and solutions that don’t matter?

Randy Hamilton lives in Rougemont.

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