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Reading to Newborns Is Probably Useless

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Citation: Fernald, Anne, Virginia A. Marchman, and Adriana Weisleder. "SES differences in language processing skill and vocabulary are evident at 18 months." Developmental Science 16.2 (2013): 234-248.
Citation: Fernald, Anne, Virginia A. Marchman, and Adriana Weisleder. "SES differences in language processing skill and vocabulary are evident at 18 months." Developmental Science 16.2 (2013): 234-248.

tnapb4 Like clockwork every few months I feel prompted to write about The Nurture Assumption. In this case it is due to The New York Times reporting that the American Academy of Pediatrics is now recommending that parents start reading to their newborns. As noted in the piece in The New York Times a major reason for this recommendation is the research which shows that higher socioeconomic status families tend to talk a lot more to their offspring than lower socioeconomic status families, and provide them with a richer vocabulary. The assumption is that this head start allows higher socioeconomic status children to outpace their peers cognitively. Naturally they reference Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children. This work surveying 42 families was published in 1995, and concluded that children raised in professional households will hear 8 million more words in a year than children raised in a household on welfare.

But that’s old news. There is also a reference to a 2013 study, SES differences in language processing skill and vocabulary are evident at 18 months. The study here looks at 48 individuals. You can see the major result at the top of this post. To me one thing that strikes me are the rather modest correlations. The children in higher socioeconomic circumstances have larger vocabularies, but it’s not an incredibly big difference. There is a huge amount of variation within socioeconomic brackets, just as there is within families. The standard deviation of IQ in groups of siblings is nearly the same as the standard deviation of IQ in the general population. There’s only so much control families and genes have (shared environment + heritable component).

Naturally the first thing that comes to mind is that socioeconomic status and intelligence are not totally uncorrelated, and intelligence is at least somewhat heritable. Smart parents might simply talk more to their children, and those children will tend to be smarter than you would expect by chance. The authors are aware of the behavior genetic literature, but they tend to argue that it can be interpreted in a way which leaves open the possibility for the large effect of shared environment. In general my prior is to be skeptical of this, because the overall body of research suggests that for many behavioral traits the variation within the population which isn’t genetic (on the order of half) is simply unaccounted for.

9780465023240 (1) This doesn’t mean that there aren’t environmental effects which might result in changes in outcome on the margin. But we just don’t know enough about non-genetic component to assume that a silver bullet policy prescription can be formulated out of a few studies. A few years ago Jim Manzi came out with the book Uncontrolled: The Surprising Payoff of Trial-and-Error for Business, Politics, and Society, where he unveiled the term “high causal density.” In other words, there are lots of causes for some effects, and it is difficult to tease apart the variables so as to engineer appropriate responses. This is clear even in the case of the genetically heritable component, which is often polygenic and difficult to assign to any given gene of large effect. And it is also likely in many cases for numerous environmental variables, some of which may simply be stochastic (which can explain differences between identical twins raised together).

Infant with a vocabulary of zero. Parents (one of them me) has never read to him

Infant with a vocabulary of zero. Parents (one of them me) have never read to him.

Unfortunately a major human cognitive bias seems to be the need to think that we can control things, and effect change. This results in the adherence to fads and fashions such as Freudianism and attachment parenting as the years come and go. The single biggest thing you as an expectant parent can do to have a child with a large vocabulary is to select a mate with a large vocabulary. This won’t guarantee anything, because there is going to be lots of variation on individual outcomes, but in a developed world context this is probably the lowest hanging fruit in terms of ‘return on investment.’ Think of it as ‘loading the die.’ That doesn’t address the issue of inequality, which is really what’s bothering people in this particular case, but I strongly suspect that reading to newborns is going to be a waste of everyone’s time here, though it may make people feel as if they are doing something. Young parents have a finite amount of time, and it seems pragmatic for them to starting reading to children when children can actually start understanding the structure of narratives!

 
• Category: Science • Tags: American Media, Behavior Genetics 

30 Comments to "Reading to Newborns Is Probably Useless"

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  1. The UK takes this madness one step beyond, with a proposal to fine parents who don’t read to their children.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-27884057

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  2. The final sentence made me chuckle. Perhaps you should also delay singing lullabies to the babies until they are able to understand the structure of musical harmony.

    There is no doubt that much of what we as parents do in vain hopes to improve lives of our children has little or no long term effect. As I love pointing out, even shorter-term effects of enriching the parent-child interaction and parental experience may alone be worth it.

    But it also keeps stunning me as a statistician to see how the parents, even the brightest one, keep cherrypicking from the sea of statistically weak / confounded / faulty parental advice, eagerly picking up bits and pieces which justify what they already want to do.

  3. Maybe starting early develops a consistent routine, so that when a critical time does actually occur, you don’t accidently miss it?

  4. If it’s all about building vocabulary, why is reading to newborns any better than just leaving the TV or radio on all day in the background? Preferably, the kids should listen to The Big Bang Theory or Frasier. I’m guessing that the difference is that reading to kids makes the parent feel good.

  5. says:
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    “Unfortunately a major human cognitive bias seems to be the need to think that we can control things, and effect change.”

    I’ve read enough of your stuff to know that you don’t mean the “Unfortunately” as broadly as it might be taken, but I would like to point out that the desire (and ability) to control and change our environment is one of the distinguishing characteristics of successful human beings. What we seem to most often lack is the wisdom to select appropriate avenues for the effort.

    Life has taught me that most grand human plans either fail or wreck against the shoals of unintended consequences, but failure to apply myself to controlling my immediate needs was a recipe for dissipation. I suspect you will agree.

    “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
    The courage to change the things I can,
    And wisdom to know the difference.”

  6. “Young parents have a finite amount of time, and it seems pragmatic for them to starting reading to children when children can actually start understanding the structure of narratives!”

    I have a question. Does this even matter? Is there any convincing evidence does reading to children improve the later-life educational performance ( I mean 12 and beyond, not elementary school performance) . I ask this seriously because I found a large number of parents in India rarely even read to children or for that matter functionally illiterate themselves. The children seem to have no trouble reading or identifying words. In addition, in South Asia, there are very few books in school (at least until sixth grade) and at home.

    On the other hand, this might be a reason for low test performance in Indian schools (illiterate parents and no reading books for several years in childhood).

  7. our daughter really really liked being read to at a very early age. she loves books. so i did i (well before i was literate). but i doubt it will be causal in the way you are asking. more a way to keep her attention.

  8. says:
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    The authors are aware of the behavior genetic literature, but they tend to argue that it can be interpreted in a way which leaves open the possibility for the large effect of shared environment.

    The shared environment does have large effects, at least on young children. C^2 diminishes with age, for most traits, and approaches 0 in adulthood, but it often exceeds H^2 for children.

    This is a very important result, but it seems it’s often ignored, even sometimes by behavorial geneticists. The heritability of a trait without reference to age is meaningless.

  9. anon, fair point, and it’s referred to in the linked article. but my assumption is that most parents/professionals think that the effect should persist beyond childhood, unlike say headstart (and i don’t see how reading a lot can other impacts aside from school like the perry preschool model).

  10. When my first born was still in the hospital, this person came in as part of some organization, doing a high pressure pitch on why reading was so important. It was like she was selling time shares in Florida or something, she was so forceful, and she wanted me to “commit” to reading to my son starting at six weeks of age.

    I think she thought that she was doing a good thing with her time, going around the hospital like that, but I wonder if it wasn’t really about the thrill of authority and getting other people to do what she wanted them to do. People can convince themselves of anything, really, provided that belief gives them a path to assumed authority, or meets some psychological need to proselytize.

  11. And anyone who hasn’t seen these now should see this collection of some of the largest and widest ranging behavioral genetic evidence. Razib Khan is correct, there is no shared environment effect on intelligence, or on most any other behavior trait or life outcome. And this is talking all the stuff that “matters,” not just broad personality traits. All are considerably impacted by heredity (with heredity explaining about 75% of the variance). One exception appears to be educational attainment, which does seem to show some residual shared environment effect. However, this may be a “nominal” effect, as none of the things that educational attainment is itself in turn supposed to affect (like say, income) show any shared environment influence. See:

    The Son Becomes The Father | JayMan’s Blog

    and

    More Behavioral Genetic Facts | JayMan’s Blog

    (I notice Little Lord Khan has blue eyes. JayMan Jr. still has his baby blues. Perhaps they will stick around.)

  12. I cannot remember exactly when we started reading nightly to our kids, but I guess it was at age 1. It wasn’t some early-prep for the Mensa exam, but our approach to establishing bed time routines. Learning to sleep is one of the big challenges for toddlers (and goals of working parents), and I wonder if the efforts and expectations of routine might be driving any positive results, not the actual nature of the routine.

    (BTW/ this summary in the Atlantic of The Broken Compass: Parental Involvement With Children’s Education, states that the authors review of 30 yrs of longitudinal studies on the effects of various types of parental involvement found little academic benefits, except reading aloud to your kids at a young age and talking about college plans with them. I have not read the book.)

  13. The Chronicle of Higher Education has a story about research focused on how children form memories (link is http://chronicle.com/article/MemoryIdentity/147287/?cid=at&utm_source=at&utm_medium=en but it’s $ubscription). The researchers seem to assume the importance of shared environment — “[Fivush] has seen again and again that families who tell intergenerational stories—ones that demonstrate the family’s strength—produce more resilient children”; “family was crucial”).

    I’m taking Matt McGue’s Coursera course and behavioral genetics, and he has stressed the decreasing role of shared environment in heritability of IQ. But I wonder whether there is research on whether that is equally true about heritability of academic performance. IQ is correlated with academic performance, obviously, but how well children with similar IQs do academically could stll depend in par on how they’re raised and what their parents value (see, Asian students).

  14. but how well children with similar IQs do academically could stll depend in par on how they’re raised and what their parents value

    i think judith rich harris’ point that it’s not really the parents, but their non-shared environment in school and peer group that effects this. asian parents do value education, but if they raise their kids in an environment where no one else does, their values won’t ‘stick.’ otoh if they go to a korean church and socialize with other kids whose parents are like that, then….

  15. Actually, one twin study did look at the peer “effect”, specifically on academic performance (cited in one my above posts). It found that peer similarity in grades was entirely due to peers self-sorting by ability/motivation.

  16. The “linear” correlations are modest, but I’m not sure that a linear function is an appropriate model.

    I’m also not sure the a somewhat arbitrary SES score is really a well validated quantitative variable the way that pure family income, which is more transparent, would be. For example, it is not at all obvious that the difference between a 10 and a 30 on that scale, and a 50 and 70 on that scale really quantify the same quantitative amount of difference in SES to the extent that this is really a well defined concept in a quantitative sense.

    Even if the SES score puts people in the right rank-order in terms of SES to the extent that it is well defined, it is not at all obvious to me that any reasonable person can really meaningfully measure 70 units of SES variation, or meaningfully measure it in a way that the rank order is quantitatively meaningful. Quite frankly, just because a scatter plot and linear regression are well understood, doesn’t mean that these are really the right tools for data analysis. (In the same vein, physicists are notorious for assuming that everything is a Gaussian distribution when often modelling the data as a Poisson distribution would make much better sense but people aren’t as familiar with it.)

    Any flaws in the index would throw off a linear correlation.

    On the other hand, if the data are analyzed in about two or three well drawn SES bins, and the vocab, accuracy and processing speed data are put in another two to four or so bins, and you analyzed the significance of the fit using a Chi-squared test, I think that you would find that the results were far more statistically significant.

    Nobody with an SES index below about 35 has a high vocabulary, a very high accuracy, or a very low reaction time (a scale in which low is a good thing). High SES also seems to insulate against low accuracy, but not low vocabulary or high reaction time (which is a bad thing).

    In plain English, the data are a pretty good fit to a model in which SES below a certain threshold environmentally suppressed high achievement, but otherwise has only a modest impact.

    Moreover, apart from suppression of high achievement below the threshold, this link to SES may very well be mostly attributable the hereditary IQ effects. Since, as you note, adult IQ and that adult’s SES are modestly correlated, and there is a weaker but real correlation with SES in children (with dilution due to regression to the mean). The correlation for very young children with SES is also probably weak because at the very young ages involved in this study random variations in developmental timing obscure long term hereditary components of adult IQ which has a stronger hereditary component.

  17. @ Linda Seebach: “I’m taking Matt McGue’s Coursera course and behavioral genetics, and he has stressed the decreasing role of shared environment in heritability of IQ. But I wonder whether there is research on whether that is equally true about heritability of academic performance.”

    The gist of the decreasing role of shared environment is a model in which potential IQ is what is inherited and that can be attained absent a bad poverty-like environment, but that the full potential cannot be reached with extreme environmental deprivation.

    IQ predicts academic performance better than it predicts almost anything else (e.g. better than adult SES and adult income), at least until you get to a level where grit, executive function, self-discipline and social skills matter in completing substantial homework assignments and group projects.

    Academic performance is a very good proxy for IQ absent some very concrete nuts and bolts confounding factors such as (1) learning in an English language classroom when you don’t speak English yet (I’m not taking a stance for or against bilingual education, but if you’re a native speak of Amharic and trying to take social studies in English, you will underperform your IQ, (2) repeated mid-year school transfers or homelessness, (3) a major illness like mono or pneumonia that last for months, and (4) pregnancy.

    @ Jayman: “Razib Khan is correct, there is no shared environment effect on intelligence, or on most any other behavior trait or life outcome. . . . One exception appears to be educational attainment, which does seem to show some residual shared environment effect.”

    Environment impact on IQ is much greater in what amount to poverty filled ghetto environments than they are in other contexts.

    There is an immense family income impact on post-secondary educational attainment, holding high school grades and test scores constant. Almost all of this involves people not going to college because they can’t afford it and don’t want to risk incurring student loan debt that they can’t repay. The way that we finance higher education for high ability moderate to low income family students is deeply broken.

  18. @ohwilleke:

    “Environment impact on IQ is much greater in what amount to poverty filled ghetto environments than they are in other contexts.”

    That’s a canard. I deal with it in my post above.

    “There is an immense family income impact on post-secondary educational attainment, holding high school grades and test scores constant.”

    Technically that’s not the same as a shared environment impact…

    But since there’s no shared environment on income, etc., this is (almost) moot.

  19. Just another data point: I read voraciously from 3, loved to be read to until I decided to eliminate the middle man. I have never liked to read aloud, and didn’t do much of it with my son. We watched TV shows and talked. He was a relatively late reader, but was nonetheless boosted a year ahead in his preschool program to the kindergarten group (relatively rare for white boys in a mixed white/Asian setting). When he was six, he wanted to get the video game Where on Earth is Carmen SanDiego, but I nixed the text heavy game because I’d have to sit by him reading it all the time. He sighed, went to his kindergarten teacher and told her he needed to learn how to read. Was reading a month later at 3rd grade level, within a year was reading at 6th grade level, and so on.

    Like me, he’s bright but not terribly academic. I did my best to counteract his tendency to underachieve and succeeded through high school–he took more advanced courses than I did. He got temporarily derailed halfway through college, but got back on course. However, he’s still not interested in academics or intellectual pursuits. He is currently using his brains to become a hell of a salesman, something neither he nor I have any natural predilection for. He’s bright, well-informed, literate, and living on his own with a terrific girlfriend (makes more than he does, although probably not for long & their reasons for not marrying are nuts) and my spectacularly beautiful granddaughter, whose eyes are currently gray.

    So I’m a bit ahead of you all in the parenting game (age wise) and the thing is, it doesn’t ultimately matter whether the things you do have an major impact or just sculpt around the edges or make no difference at all. You work to provide the best environment for your kids because you love them and because it makes you joyful.

  20. Given the pervasive bias toward “nurture” in our society, I understand why hereditarians constantly under siege (among which I count myself) might summarize the data presented in this post as “reading to newborns is probably useless.”

    But useless for what? I agree that there is a rather widespread, grandiose illusion about the extent to which parents can control the destinies of their children, particularly among the economically upscale. I am open, and indeed partial, to the probability that reading early on may not influence later academic outcomes in the main. Any observant parent with multiple children (among which I again count myself) can tell that siblings often have dramatically different personalities and aptitudes (not to mention different levels of life successes) despite being given similar upbringing.

    Nonetheless, despite the probability that reading to very young children may not produce much of a material difference later on in life, I find there is something beautiful about reading to young children and even to babies. One of my earliest memories is my mother reading the Iliad to me (in Korean) as I fell into slumber every night. She made a ritual of it. I did not understand but odd words here and there, but mostly I remember being very comforted by it and recall this very fondly to this day.

    I have read to all my children since day one (I’ve also sang the Marian Antiphons to them in Latin since birth — I sing them to my children every night before their nightly prayers). Yes, I read them the Iliad (in English) and still do. I do not expect this will make a whit of difference to their later reading ability, academic success or life achievements. I do it because I enjoy it greatly in the first place and because the children seem to enjoy it as well. It has become a lovely tradition, which I hope my children will remember very fondly, as I did with my mother’s reading.

    Useless? Hardly. It’s the stuff of family tradition and even myth, a thing of beauty and romance to anchor families and children, beyond grades, degrees or career successes.

    Read away to your newborns!

  21. I learned how to read at about age 3 or so, and learned to read upside down, since my father read to me every night while sitting across from me. I became a voracious upside down reader before entering school, and it was quite a transition to learn to read the other way around as the teachers required of me at school. I didn’t fully transition to reading normally until about 3rd grade or so.

  22. P. D. Shaw -

    Reading to my older daughter (now 7) helped with bedtime, but once she started reading for herself, it’s not achieving that goal. As when I was a child, she can read for *hours* in bed (though usually not more than an hour and a half), and often does. Younger daughter (now 4) often goes to bed and falls asleep before her established bedtime, but likes being read to both at bedtime and otherwise.

  23. Reading to newborns is a thing? I thought you were supposed to play Mozart to them before birth. Why wasn’t I informed?

  24. Such
    charts are called “Sternenhimmel” (starry sky) when trying to be polite,
    and “Fliegenschiß” (flies droppings) in German when “talking German”.
    Interestingly, “talking German” is possible in any language :=)
    Regards
    Georg

  25. “Young parents have a finite amount of time, and it seems pragmatic for them to starting reading to children when children can actually start understanding the structure of narratives!”

    You seem to be assuming that ROI is a valid principle for deciding how much time to spend with one’s own small children. In fact newborns and their parents or other caregivers simply seem to enjoy spending quiet time together. The adult (or older child) often enjoys reading aloud (or singing a song) rather than sitting in silence, and the baby appears to be soothed by the sound the adult’s voice. I’d assume this has some positive long-term effects (in terms of bonding, likely, not vocabulary-building) that someone could measure if they chose to, but, seriously, who cares? It’s just a nice thing to do.

    As for new parents’ very real time pressures, I found, paradoxically, that taking a half-hour or so to be quietly present with a small child mostly served as an escape from all that.

  26. The child is gaining more then a vocabulary -just by hearing you voice he is learning your system of right and wrong – you are imprinting on him your values.

    The child is learning empathy for the characters in the story, and he is imaginings events that are detached from his life.

    By listening to a story, he is learning to concentrate on something for an extended period of time.

    Also the child is building his capacity to recall things – children like to hear the same stories over and over – as that happens they are recalling the exact words, building their in their brain the capacity to remember intellectual things.

  27. Mozart? Ugh, only for poseurs.

    I played Schumann for my babies while they baked. Only crazy (literally) composers for a crazy family with a crazy dad.

    Early reading is useful. My five year old read the nutrition label for his Kefir today and declared that henceforth he will not drink it because “it has too much sugar (’13 grams per serving!’), and sugar is not good for you.” He overheard his mommy talking about not consuming too much sugar earlier somewhere. She laughed and said “Good, he’s only five, but he is already neurotic like the rest of us.” Crazy, as I said.

  28. I got it, why not read a mainstream newspaper to the baby? Then you can do two useless things at once.

  29. […] Reading to Newborns Is Probably Useless – from razib. […]

  30. A friend of mine had his newborn baby doing situps as soon as the kid came home from the hospital. OK, crunches. Baby steps.

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