eReaders, iPad, and Home Literacy

“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what then, is an empty desk?” — Albert Einstein


eReaders and the iPad could well be the best house-cleaning appliances ever invented. All the clutter on your bookshelves, magazines and newspapers strewn everywhere, and even those ubiquitous household bills can all be swept under the eCarpet. Yes, even flyers, ads, and coupons, they are now online or in apps… and maps? Just bring your iPhone.

But wait, what’s with this study done by Dr. Mariah Evans, sociologist at the University of Nevada, Reno, recently published in the journal Research in Social Stratification and MobilityAccording to its abstract, the study found that:

Children growing up in homes with many books get 3 years more schooling than children from bookless homes, independent of their parents’ education, occupation, and class.

Together with her colleagues at the University of Nevada, UCLA and Australian National University, Evans studied 70,000 children in 27 countries over a span of 20 years, one of the largest and most comprehensive studies ever conducted on what influences the level of education a child will attain. The difference between a bookless home and a home with 500 books amounts to an average of 3.2 years of further education. In China, the difference is 6.6 years.

As a sociologist, Dr. Evans is concerned with helping children of rural communities in Nevada to achieve higher education. Regardless of parents’ socio-economic and educational levels, the number of books at home is the single most significant correlate of educational attainment.

I know what’s on your mind… how many families have more than 500 books in their home. Well the idea is, the more the better:

Even a little bit goes a long way,” in terms of the number of books in a home. Having as few as 20 books in the home still has a significant impact on propelling a child to a higher level of education, and the more books you add, the greater the benefit.

You get a lot of ‘bang for your book’,” she said. “It’s quite a good return-on-investment in a time of scarce resources.

In an interview which is available on MP3, Evans explains:

When you have very highly educated parents, you still get some result of additional books in the home. But you get much more of what you might call ‘bang for your book’ for parents who have little education.

So now, back to our house-cleaning issue. How would home literacy be affected if more and more books are being swept away and stored in electronic devices and less and less on our shelves and strewn on the floor? Can the neat and tidy Kindle or iPad have the same effects as a real home library or ‘literacy mess’ for a child? Can 500 books in the eReader influence a child as much as 500 books around the home? Just some thoughts for future research.



You might ask what good do mere numbers do if you don’t use them. You can’t assume usage with presence, right? Well the question is, how can you use them if they are not around?  Evans claimed that just having them there, and watching a parent read a book is significant enough. If you’re caught reading a book, you are reading a book. But if you’re caught using an iPad, you may not be reading, you could be shopping, checking your stocks, or playing video games.

As for usage, electronic gadgets tend to promote individualized activities. The traditional ways of using books just might not be as compatible with these devices, like the cuddly moments of mother and child sharing a book at bedtime (see those teeth marks on the board books), the intimacy between book and reader, the appreciation and touch, the joy their aesthetics could bring, the picking up of a pen or pencil and marking and doodling around the pages, the practice of real life literacy activities with them, both personal and communal. And oh, the pleasure of browsing in a bookstore and the excitement of looting in a book sale.

Further, home literacy is more than just books. I was involved in an ethnographic study on language learning several years ago. I spent hours in several homes of young children, observing their literacy environment. My observations included materials that could foster language development. I noted, other than books, alphabet magnets on the fridge, newspapers, magazines, calendars, recipes, personal notes, notice boards, TV guides, shopping lists, food packaging, flyers, coupons, and ‘junk mails’, any print materials exposing a child to words and writing. One parent I observed had purposely placed newspapers in the bathroom, making the printed word more accessible to her child.  The rationale behind the study was that preschool children growing up in a home milieu rich in print materials are primed for language and literacy learning long before they even begin formal schooling.

With the arrivals of eBooks and eEverything else, printed matters are on the decline. Sure, it’s not all or nothing. Printed books will still be around.  But with eBook sales now surpassing hard copies at Amazon, the trend is obvious. eReaders and iPads are definitely ingenious and convenient devices, but how would home literacy change with these gadgets? And, how would we change as a human reader? It’s not about holding on to the archaic or being a Luddite, it’s all about our future, our very human future.

Of course, I’d appreciate a clean house. But hey, please don’t touch that pile. I know exactly where to find what under which. Thanks.


*And, to satisfy your curiosity, how many families Evans found to have 500 or more books in their homes? In the U.S., 18%.

“Family scholarly culture and educational success: Books and schooling in 27 nations” by M. D. R. Evans, Jonathan Kelley, Joanna Sikora, and Donald J. Trelman. Published in Research In Social Stratification and Mobility, Volume 28, Issue 2, June 2010, Pages 171 – 197. Click Here to go to the article.

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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

6 thoughts on “eReaders, iPad, and Home Literacy”

  1. I personally, think it is very likely that Evans is mixing up cause and effect. Despite the correlation seen in families without a high level of education, I do not think that a dedicated, hungry-for-knowledge parent will not rub off on their children.

    A parent who wants their kid to succeed and become educated will likely purchase and own more books. That doesn’t mean it’s the books that lead to that education. If we have any question as to whether the trend towards e-books will have a negative effect on your children, buy them an e-reader and they’ll have access to THOUSANDS of books, instead of your meager 500. If anything, your parental guidance and this unparalleled access technology provides, your kid will end up a PHD candidate, not a 3 and a half years of college dropout. 🙂


    My question exactly is this: Will they? Will the eReader have the same effects as real books in the home? And will they be correlated to educational attainment as Evans’ study shows? And, how would electronic devices change home literacy, literacy activities and interactions within the family? I don’t know the answers to these questions. That’s why I mentioned in my post that these are good topics for future research: How would eReading change us as readers and learners. Maybe Evans’ team should look into this for their next 20-year study.

    Regarding your opinion about Evans mixing up cause and effect, since I haven’t read the article except just read about it, I cannot critique it. But considering it is an extensive, 20-year international study published in a peer-reviewed academic journal, I assume such an obvious issue would have been dealt with in the rationale, collection and analysis of data during the research. Getting hold of the article might clear up some of your queries.

    Thank you for stopping by and leaving your comment.



  2. For at least one company, it is all, rather than nothing. Dorchester Publlishing has moved to all digital and no longer will be printing books in the traditional way.

    It’s at least slightly amusing from this perspective: 65% of their titles are romance novels and, as the current article in the Wall Street Journal says, “Romance fans in particular have already embraced e-books, in part because customers can read them in public without having to display the covers. 🙂

    But apart from that, I’m becoming increasingly distressed by the movement toward digital, just as I’m becoming even more opposed to the reduction of friendship to Facebook exchanges and the substitution of twitters and texts for conversation.

    We tend to forget that it was the invention of movable type that helped to bring about a world of literacy. The irony is that while Project Gutenberg continues transforming the world’s books to digital format, it may be enabling a post-literate world with these new inventions we seem to love so, a world where all the beauty and wisdom in our books slowly erodes away.

    I’m not saying “burn all the kindles” – far from it. But we do tend to love discarding the old in favor of the new, thinking in either/or terms when both/and would do quite well. We need to keep raising these issues – not so much for our sakes, but for the sake of those generations coming after us who also deserve to know the pleasure of a book.


    You’ve raised some interesting points. First is the willingness of romance book readers to shift to eReaders. You’ll never know, the publisher might even attract more readers this way, male and female 🙂

    Also, with the fast changes we’re seeing in our tech. dominant society, we need to re-define some of the basic concepts that we’ve known all along, such as ‘friendship’, ‘talk’, and now, ‘book’, ‘reading’ and ‘literacy’. We need all the more to objectively study these changes and observe how they are altering our society and us as humanity.

    You’re right in pointing out it shouldn’t be either/or, but maintaining the best of both worlds. We certainly don’t want to deprive our future generations the pleasure of books and the intimacy and bonding they can foster in a family.



  3. Thought-provoking post.

    Was a rabid book-lover, but am getting tempted by the iPad.


    As Linda says above, it’s not an either/or scenario. I have the app ‘Stanza’ on my iPhone. It’s a bit too small a screen to read, so, the iPad is a viable option for me. I’m sure it’s fun to use and great for travelling. But of course, it won’t replace real books for me. 🙂

    Thanks for stopping by and leaving your comment.



  4. We had books at home when I was a kid and my sister and I each had our own books but we certainly didn’t have 500 books in the house. There simply was not the room to keep them. We did, however, go to the library. A lot. Does the study take library access into consideration at all? Families on limited incomes are not going to be able to afford books but they can go to the library.


    Good point. The library certainly is a gold mine of treasures, especially for low income families who can’t afford to buy many books. Since I haven’t read the article or the research study, I can’t comment on whether they counted library books in the home. But I’d just think that borrowed books would likely have similar effects on the child in terms of home literacy environment. And as Evans said, a little goes on long way, even just 20 can make a difference.



  5. Great post! I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the death of paper books. We like to collect old books at our house. Some are classics, others are ephemeral windows on another age. Electronic devices can’t replace these. And anything on a electronic device can be deleted from outside, such as “1984” was by because of a copyright complaint. Electronic devices give us access to so much more, yet we give up some automony over knowledge. Works can be “edited” as some newspaper articles are now. Some articles on the New York Times, for example, are now almost impossible to find because they are embarrassing to some political entity now in power. I know because I’ve tried to find these articles.

    Electronic devices quickly become obsolete, too. What happens to the books on them? The same goes for digital photographs. I love digital photography, but what record will we leave behind when all of the servers crash?


    It’ll be horror if our servers crash… something of an apocalyptic sci-fi theme for a book or movie. But you’ve brought out a good point. We’re just too trusting with our digital technology. I think I’ll cherish books for a long, long while… they’re an art form. While the eReader is just another gadget that could become obsolete in a matter of months or even days.



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