Good order, good reading skills

In orderly homes, where educated, middle-class mothers enforce regular meal and bed times, children read better. Emily Bazelon looks at “Order in the House!” a study of middle-class kindergartners and first-graders by Anna D. Johnson and Anne Martin of Columbia’s Teachers College. Researchers looked at mothers with average reading ability and those with above-average reading skills, controlling for socioeconomic status.

Both groups of mothers were asked about how often their children are read to—and also how often they amuse themselves with books. Then the mothers were asked a separate set of questions about order at home, designed to get at what researchers call “executive function.” A few sample responses: “It’s a real zoo in our home,” “The children have a regular bedtime routine,” and “We are usually able to stay on top of things.”

. . . Surprisingly, the amount of shared parent-child reading time did not matter, on average, for the reading skills of either group of kids. What mattered instead, for the kids of average-reader mothers, was how often a child amuses herself with books. What mattered for the kids of the high-reading moms was how orderly the family’s home was.

Johnson and Martin theorize that household order reflects “maternal industriousness, planning ability, or conscientiousness.”

Maybe order helps promote reading only among the children of the high-reading mothers because it’s what the authors call a “higher order element”—in other words, it matters only once you’ve got the basics down, which means reading to your kids pre-kindergarten and surrounding them with books.

As an excellent reader and an orderly mother, I approve this study. I wonder if there’s a link between order and reading for low-income and working-class kids.

Via This Week in Education.

About Joanne


  1. Ha!

    You cannot fool me! This is yet another attempt to impose The White Man’s Values on everyone else.

  2. That’s an absurd study on its face. Anecdotally, as a high-reading, profoundly disorganized mom, I exist to contradict the study–my son has had exceptionally high reading comprehension all his life. I didn’t read to my son, either. Never much liked reading aloud.

    I don’t know when it will occur to people that reading strength is an aptitude influenced far more by nature than nurture.

  3. God, I hope my kids’ reading abilities aren’t connected to my “executive function” skills. It’s a good day when we can all find our books with only a few minutes search through the piles of paper, laundry, and books.

  4. Cardinal Fang says:

    This study seems like it has cause and effect backwards, at least for the above-average reading mothers. All of those above-average reader mothers surround their children with print– of course they do, mom is reading all the time.

    But the children of disorganized mothers tend to have children who read less well. Is this because children in disorganized households don’t get as much reading stimulus and therefore don’t read as well? I guess that, instead, it’s because disorganized households imply ADHDish mothers, and ADHD is both heritable and linked to other heritable learning disabilities. In other words, disorganized mothers are likely to give birth to dyslexic children. But those children would still be dyslexic if their mothers were organized.

  5. SuperSub says:

    To those self-professed disorganized moms, I wonder how your “disorganization” would rate on a more objective scale… you may be more organized than you think.

    The “orderly homes” concept may just be a proxy for parental involvement and interest in their child’s success.

    And, whatever the root cause is of the differences between the groups, something tells me that the effects would be seen in far more academic areas than reading.

  6. Has anyone here ever been in a public housing apt? TV on loud, chaos in the halls, usually random strangers about–disorganized is a mild word. If you read Random Family, you can get a hint of how hard it is for kids to have any sense of peace at home. Concentration would be impossible.

    I have ADD, but my disorganization and the chaos that exists in many homes are light-years apart.

  7. There are other advantages to reading to one’s kids.

    I read to all of my three children well beyond first grade. In doing so we developed a whole series of shared stories we could reference in family conversations. This was made even better because many of the stories I read to my children were read to me by my father. This meant that three generations of us could sit at the table and understand the same references.

    With apologies to Don Hirsch, we created our own family Cultural Literacy.

  8. lking4truth says:

    Seems like when a study does not come out the way the researchers think they say….”Surprisingly….” and still try to find some “correlation” that would be interesting. (correlation can amount to jack-squat). No cause and effect. Only Interesting things that co-occur.

  9. I think perhaps there’s “disorganized” and DISORGANIZED, as other commenters have noted.

    “disorganized” means you can’t find that last library book to return on the day they’re due. Or getting the keys requires a bit of a search. Or permission slips get lost now and then. But the kids are fed and taken to the doctor and mostly get their homework done and mostly go to bed on time.

    DISORGANIZED is a whole other level – where there’s chaos in the home and the kids’ basic needs are not being met.

    I grew up in a somewhat “disorganized” family – let’s say ‘absent minded professor’ disorganized. But I never felt like it was chaotic. I felt safe. And so, reading could become a priority because I wasn’t worrying for my safety or having to worry about feeding/dressing my younger brother.

    I have had people who’ve done mission trips – or worked in family assistance – tell me stories of real chaos in households and there’s a world of difference.

    I think most of the people reading on here who call themselves “disorganized” are actually pretty darn organized by comparison.

    I’m not sure what to do to help the ‘chaos’ families but it must be a tough tough way to have to grow up.

  10. The study focused on middle class families, so there’s no reason to think that the “disorganization” in question isn’t pretty much the same. After all, if these are middle class families wiht the same level of disorganization found in an urban ghetto, then the study isn’t honest about selecting outliers.

  11. It should be easy to see a discrepancy in the reading ability of the first and subsequent children by this measure, since the second and subsequent children all grow up in homes far more disorganized than the first child did.

  12. if you read Bazelon, she mentions the demographics of the group studied. There is no chaotic project in the cohort.

  13. Tracy W says:

    Where are Dads in all this?

    Have the researchers ruled out any correlation between a women’s characteristics and the characteristics of the men that they marry?

  14. SuperSub says:

    There can be varying levels of disorganization without the need to label any as outliers.
    I’ve tutored various students at home and seen low-income urban households that were very “organized” – the children had bedtimes, were expected to do their homework right after coming home, and were largely supervised in one way or another while at home.
    I’ve also seen middle-income and high-income households where, yes, the parents might take 10 minutes to read to their children, but for the other 7-8 hours afterschool the children are left to their own devices. Second graders should not be left to put themselves to sleep when they feel like it, but many parents allow this because they are too busy/confused/ignorant/lazy to enforce a bedtime.
    Income status and household organization are in no way linked, and I think this may have been an underlying purpose of this study – that the best thing that a parent can do to ensure academic success is to be, well, a parent.

  15. Most of my students, especially the ones who do poorly in school, come from highly dysfunctional homes. They are living in chaos because this is what keeps the family is poverty and disarray. You’ve got to have some organizational skills to be successful in the economy.

  16. I’m extremely orderly and my middle schooler reads beyond a 12th grade lexile. So there ya go. (I like to think it has more to do with reading her T. S. Eliot and Williams Carlos Williams before she could talk, but that just warped her I think.)

    I’m not sure it it is any suprise that a basically functional household is conducive to school success. I’d bet results would correlate if they studied, for example, homeless children.

  17. Supersub,

    Perhaps you should familiarize yourself with the basics of the performance gap. The most organized “low income urban household” that took you in as a tutor almost certainly had lower achievement than those disorganized middle class parents that you sneer at. Statistically, this is beyond dispute.

    Spare the world your flailing–and false–equivalencies. Surely thirty years of this nonsense has been enough.


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