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
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
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
“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.
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“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
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
“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,
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.
Pediatrics, online June 2, 2014.
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