Line Knudsen: Can book-gifting increase language skills of Scottish children?

Could book-gifting increase language skills of children? Picture: Stuart Cobley
Could book-gifting increase language skills of children? Picture: Stuart Cobley
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IT’S widely known that reading with children from an early age is beneficial for children’s development.

As a nation we seem to have taken this on board, with most parents in Scotland reading with their young children most days of the week.

However, a recent survey has shown that literacy standards among primary school pupils have fallen since 2012.

One way that charities and governments are attempting to improve language and reading skills is through universal book gifting schemes which provide free books to all families with young children.

But are these schemes useful for parents and, more importantly, do they make a difference for children?

Using data from the Growing Up in Scotland study (GUS), which tracks the lives of two cohorts of Scottish children, researchers from ScotCen have looked at whether exposure to part of one such universal book gifting scheme in Scotland, Bookbug, is linked to how often parents read with their children, and to children’s cognitive development.

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Since 2010, Bookbug has tried to encourage and support parents in reading to their little ones by giving out free book packs to every child in Scotland and hosting free song and rhyme sessions – not least in the hope of starting to bridge the gap between more and less advantaged children.

More frequent reading in all families

The results from the GUS research are certainly promising. Almost all parents of children who were 10 months old in 2011 had used one or more Bookbug resources, and this was associated with parents reading more frequently with their child.

There is a risk that universal initiatives of this nature will mainly benefit families that are already more likely to read to their children, such as those where parents are highly educated.

Indeed, in 2011 parents in more advantaged circumstances were more likely to report using the Bookbug packs than those in disadvantaged circumstances.  

Nevertheless, amongst parents who used the packs, it was encouraging to find that use was linked to more frequent parent-child reading among all families, regardless of the parents’ level of education.

Vocabulary linked to parents’ education

Our research also found an association between using Bookbug and better vocabulary at age three.

However, this applied only for children with better-educated parents, even after controlling for factors such as the home learning environment.

This could suggest that not only the frequency of parent-child reading but also how parents read with their children is important to improve vocabulary.

Parents with higher levels of education may feel more comfortable explaining difficult words to their children, or encourage their children to be an active part of the story-telling process (sometimes referred to as ‘dialogic reading’). Overall, the GUS findings are encouraging for children and for those involved in promoting book-sharing.

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However, if the aim is for initiatives such as Bookbug to close the gap between more and less advantaged children, it is clear that while provision of books is a good place to start, that alone is not enough.

Line Knudsen is a researcher at ScotCen Social Research.

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