NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Minority children often lag behind their peers in language development when they start preschool. According to a new study, some of that disparity in school readiness may be due to differences in the frequency of “book sharing” among families.
The study found that parents in Hispanic or Asian immigrant families in California were less likely to read or look at picture books with their young children than non-Hispanic white parents.
“I think there’s enough research that reading to children early on prepares them better for school,” senior author Dr. Fernando Mendoza told Reuters Health. “Early reading enlarges vocabulary and becomes a tool for many other kinds of learning later on in school.”
Mendoza worked on the study at the Stanford University School of Medicine in Palo Alto, California.
“There is a difference in the reported reading in immigrant households, but we have a long way to go in understanding what is behind that,” added Natalia Festa, who also worked on the study at Stanford.
The researchers looked at data from statewide telephone surveys of households in California in 2005, 2007 and 2009. The surveys asked almost 15,000 parents of children under age six how often anyone in the household read stories or looked at picture books with the child.
About half of the children in the study had two U.S.-born parents, with the other half having at least one foreign-born parent, which qualified as an immigrant family.
As a whole, 67 percent of kids shared books with their parents on a daily basis, and another 22 percent did so almost daily, according to the surveys. Seven percent of kids shared books with parents one or two days per week, and the remaining four percent never shared books, the researchers reported in Pediatrics.
Parents with low education levels or a low household income were less likely to book share with their kids. But even when those factors were taken into account, immigrant parents were less likely to share books than native-born parents.
“This paper just says there is a difference, and not because they’re poor, but because they are immigrants,” Mendoza said.
More than two thirds of parents in English-speaking households reported daily book sharing, compared to half of parents in non-English-speaking homes.
“Findings like this are really important, they continue to document the ways that immigrant families are at risk,” said Dr. Alan L. Mendelsohn, who studies child development at the New York University School of Medicine. He was not part of the new research.
Reading or storytelling in early life predicts how well children will do when they enter preschool, which translates to how they do when they start kindergarten, which is incredibly predictive of achievement later in school and in life, Mendelsohn said.
Since economic differences don’t explain the trends seen in the study, cultural differences in child rearing might, according to pediatrics researcher Dr. Barry S. Zuckerman of the Boston University School of Medicine.
“Most immigrant parents, particularly those from rural areas of their native countries, grew up where their parents didn’t read to them,” Zuckerman told Reuters Health. He also didn’t participate in the new study.
What’s important about book sharing, he said, is that it’s an interactive experience between parent and child.
“We do know that input into the brain system changes the brain architecture, and not reading specifically, but exposure to words,” he said. “Children learn words and language when it’s a response to them.”
With picture books, parents help the child name an animal or elaborate on the stories in the pictures, he said.
Many immigrant parents may have two jobs or work long hours, leaving less time for book sharing, Mendoza said.
The experts agreed that it is likely not an issue of available children’s books in languages other than English, since telling a story based on a picture book requires almost no actual reading for the parent.
“What this work really highlights is the importance of engaging families early in life,” Mendelsohn said.
The study authors highlight programs that promote childhood literacy and center on family visits to the pediatrician, like Reach Out and Read, which Zuckerman founded. Reach Out and Read provides books in the family’s preferred language and involves taking some time out of regular pediatric visits for the doctor and parent to discuss the importance of reading.
A language barrier between the doctor and parent in that setting could make reading advocacy programs less effective for immigrant families, but that’s a question that needs further investigation, Mendoza said.
More than half of children born in California today are Latino, and investing in their future is investing in the future of the country as a whole, he said.
SOURCE: bit.ly/1iLGDBH Pediatrics, online June 2, 2014.