+ Messy House, Messy Mind? Or Not.

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From Emily Bazelon at Slate.com, a report about an academic article by Anna D Johnson and Anne Martin of Columbia’s Teachers College. 

The authors looked at the effect of household order on kids’ reading skills.

The sample is narrow: 455 kindergartners and first-graders, all twins, from Ohio and western Pennsylvania, nearly all white and middle class.  The children were divided into two groups: those whose mothers have above-average reading skills and those whose mothers are average readers.

In both groups, they controlled for socioeconomic status, which means that their results can’t be explained away by class differences.  (The research was done only with mothers, not fathers — double interviews cost more, and also the mother is “usually the best recorder” of family events.)

Both groups of mothers were asked how often their children were read to, as well as how often the kids amuse themselves with books.   

Then the mothers were asked a separate set of questions about order at home, designed to get at what researchers call “executive function.”  Sample answers were: “It’s a real zoo in our home, “The children have a regular bedtime routine,” and “We are usually able to stay on top of things.”

The amount of shared parent-child reading time did not matter, on average, for the reading skills of either group of kids.

  • What mattered, for the kids of average-reader mothers, was how often a child amuses himself with books.
  • What mattered, for the kids of the high-reading moms, was how orderly the family’s home was.

What does it all mean?  Well, says Bazelon in her post on Slate.com, it does not mean we should stop bedtime reading.  Lots of studies support the importance of such activity.  And, she says, we’re only talking here about one slice of kids — middle class.

Johnson and Martin admit that even for this group, the results may reflect mostly timing, since much of early-reading research involves preschoolers.

The authors offer another theory to explain their findings about the benefits of order.

Perhaps, they say, “household order taps a more fundamental characteristic of parents or households, such as maternal industriousness, planning ability, or conscientiousness, that gives rise to both orderliness and better reading skills in children.”

This is the idea of executive functioning, “planning and problem-solving abilities.”

Maybe order helps promote reading only among the children of the high-reading mothers because it’s what the authors call a “higher order element.”  It matters only, perhaps, once you’ve got the basics down: you’ve already read to them when they were tiny; you’ve already surrounded them with books.

According to Fred Morrison, professor of education and psychology at the University of Michigan, order and executive function are aspects of parenthood that hasn’t been studied much lately.  “This is an example,” he says, “of a new set of research that is opening up vistas of parenting we haven’t really looked at in the last 10 to 15 years.”

Morrison likes the Johnson-Martin study.  But he stresses — as do Johnson and Martin themselves — that the findings are preliminary; they haven’t been replicated.

He is also not convinced that order and organization actually account  for why some kids of high-reading moms learn to read earlier and better than other kids with similar moms.

Another aspect that’s also beginning to get attention, he says, is warmth and responsiveness.    Since Johnson and Martin didn’t measure this, we can’t know whether another explanation for their results about early literacy lies in how warm and responsive parents are — do they ask questions; do they encourage their childrens’ curiosity?   

sole source: Emily Bazelon’s Slate.com post on February 26, 2009.  www.slate.com

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