Families & the Community

Census: Parents Reading More With Their Children

By Sarah D. Sparks — August 19, 2011 5 min read
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Today’s parents—especially low-income parents—are more involved with their young children than they were a decade ago, in ways that research has shown could boost children’s academic careers down the road.

Amid dense new data released Aug. 11 from the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent Survey of Income and Program Participation, several indicators show American children are spending more time with their parents, from reading to playing to eating dinner, than they did in 1998. The latest data, which are for 2009 and come from interviews with a nationally representative sample of more than 42,000 households, could signal the potential for more parent involvement in education, even as federal, state, and district money for parent engagement shrinks.

Sheila Smith, the early-childhood director for the New York City-based National Center for Children in Poverty, said the indicators come as a hopeful surprise.

“We might almost expect the opposite trend because of the economic pressures,” she said. “When parents are under greater economic pressure, they may have less time and be under more stress and risk of depression.

“But on the other hand, there has really been a kind of convergence of new efforts to make parents aware of how important parent involvement in general, and reading with children in particular, are to school readiness and success,” Ms. Smith said.

Among such positive trends, the Census Bureau found:

• Parents overwhelmingly reported that they not only want, but expect, their children to graduate from high school and college. While fewer than half of low-income parents in 1998 expected their children to graduate from college, 54 percent of that group expected their children to earn a college degree in 2009.

• Among children in poverty, 45 percent of 1- and 2-year-olds and 40 percent of children ages 3 to 5 had parents who read to them at least seven times a week in 2009; by contrast, in 1998, among families in poverty, only 37 percent of the toddlers and 34 percent of the preschoolers read with their families as often. The proportion of low-income children being read to by their families increased faster than for their wealthier peers.

• Low-income parents were 10 percent more likely in 2009 than in 1998 to have frequent conversations with their preschool or elementary-age children “just for fun” throughout the day, with more than half doing so.

• Parents in general were far more likely in 2009 to play and eat dinner with their children, and to praise their children at least three times a day, though younger children got more positive reinforcement than did teenagers.

“It’s not management language like, ‘Do this, do that,’ ” Ms. Smith said of these sorts of parent-child conversations. “Instead it’s, ‘Oh, remember what we did on the number-six bus going to the dentist?’ It’s language that tends to be more complex in syntax and structure.

“That’s the kind of language that helps children learn to read,” she said.

Evidence for Quality Time

Research shows increasing that type of “quality time” between parents and children can have a big effect on development and academic progress. A landmark 1995 study, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children, found that the vocabularies of children of parents on welfare lagged behind those of the children of professionals by an average of 1,537 words by age 3, in large part because professional parents engaged their children in more frequent and more positive conversations.

“The effects on future student academic achievement are very large—differences among children at entry into kindergarten in the skills that are a product of the home environment are more powerful predictors of future academic achievement than variables under the control of K-12 schools,” said Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, the director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. He is also the former director of the federal Institute for Education Sciences and a longtime researcher on parent involvement.

The Census Bureau data showed that parents of all income brackets tended to read more often with their toddlers than with older children. Betty Hart, an associate professor emeritus in the University of Kansas child-language doctoral program and a co-author of the influential 1995 study on parent talk, said that tendency could in part reflect some parents’ greater level of comfort with reading to younger children.

“With a toddler, you can just talk about the pictures,” Ms. Hart said. “Once they get older, you have books with more plot, and you need to have someone who can read well.”

Supporting Involvement

That’s where education partnerships have come in during the past decade, experts agree. They point to an explosion of programs intended to help parents connect with their children, particularly in academics, from federal literacy initiatives like Early Reading First to private nonprofit book-distribution programs like Reading Is Fundamental and Reach Out and Read.

Such programs proliferated in the early to mid-2000s, but many have lost financial support. In the fiscal 2011 budget, Congress did not fund Early Reading First, Reading Is Fundamental, or the Even Start Family Literacy grants, after research showed lackluster results for the programs.

Yet parent-involvement advocates argue that schools should continue to play a role in parent training.

“While all parents can engage in these rich conversations, they often need some modeling; they need to know what it looks like,” Ms. Smith said. “It’s really something that schools can do without a lot of additional funding.”

It may be difficult to directly link broad increases in the kind of involvement highlighted in the Census Bureau data to specific parent interventions, but Ms. Hart said the trends could inform education researchers and policymakers.

“It’s really encouraging that [parent involvement] has increased,” Ms. Hart said. “The government should keep that in mind when they come to cutting the budget.”

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A version of this article appeared in the August 24, 2011 edition of Education Week as Census Points to Positive Trends in Parent Involvement

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