Reading to a child at age 3 pays real dividends two years later

16 February 2010

Parents who read to their child every day at age 3 are more likely to see them flourishing in a wide range of subjects during their first year in primary school, a UK-wide study suggests.

Daily reading sessions with three-year-olds appear to boost children’s scores in the Foundation Stage Profile — the teacher assessment that is conducted at the end of the Reception year in England. Children who have been read to daily tend to score more highly in not only language and literacy, and knowledge and understanding of the world, but also in maths.

They even outscore other children, on average, in assessments of their social and emotional, physical and creative development, says Dr Kirstine Hansen of the Institute of Education, University of London. The advantage conferred by daily reading appears similar to the gain from attending a day nursery or nursery school at, or up to, the age of 5.

Dr Hansen acknowledges that daily reading with a child may be an indicator of more general parenting behaviour that benefits child development. However, she says it would be worth exploring this issue further as it could point to ways of helping disadvantaged children during the crucial pre-school years.

Her research involved more than 10,600 children being tracked by the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS). Although the Foundation Stage Profile is not normally used in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, teachers in these countries produced similar one-off assessments for the MCS children that enabled the study to cover the whole of the UK.

Analysis of the teacher assessments confirmed that older children in the year group tended to outscore younger classmates. As other studies have shown, children with heavier birth weights also had higher than average scores (low birth weight may indicate failure to thrive in gestation and can lead to long-term health problems or development delays).

The study also found that girls are doing consistently better than boys at age 5. Girls were only about a month ahead in their knowledge and understanding of the world but were nine months ahead in creative development — art, drama, singing and dancing.

Dr Hansen’s findings appear in a book on the Millennium Cohort Study’s first three surveys, which is published today (February 17) by The Policy Press. Children of the 21st century (volume 2): the first five years is available from the publisher’s website

The Millennium Cohort Study is run by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the Institute of Education. It was commissioned by the Economic and Social Research Council, whose funding has been supplemented by a consortium of Government departments.

Further information

David Budge
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Notes for editors

1. The first survey of the Millennium Cohort Study took place between June 2001 and January 2003. It gathered information from the parents of 18,818 babies born in the four UK countries. The second survey took place at age 3 and the third at age 5. Its field of inquiry covers such diverse topics as parenting; childcare; school choice; child behaviour and cognitive development; child and parental health; parents’ employment and education; income and poverty; and housing, neighbourhood and residential mobility. It is the first of the nationwide cohort studies to over-sample places with high densities of ethnic minorities and large numbers of disadvantaged families.

2. The Institute of Education is a college of the University of London, specialising in teaching, research and consultancy in education and related areas of social science and professional practice. The 2008 Research Assessment Exercise judged almost two-thirds of the work submitted by the IOE as internationally significant, and 35 per cent as ‘world leading’.

3. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC’s planned total expenditure in 2009/10 is £204 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.

The contract for data collection in MCS is awarded under competitive tender to specialist agencies. For three out of the four surveys undertaken to date the data collection was carried out by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), who in turn sub-contracted the interviewing in Northern Ireland to the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA). The agency responsible for the second round of data collection was Gfk-NOP, who sub-contracted in Northern Ireland to Millward Brown.

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