Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

Half of Young Children in the U.S. are Read to at Least Once a Day. That’s the news from a new U.S. Census Bureau report. Virtually all the increase since 1998 comes from low-income parents reading more often to their young children, ages 1-5. Parents are also spending more time interacting with their children in other ways, whether in conversation or play or at the dinner table.

“While reading interactions are more frequent among families above poverty, reading interactions among low-income families have increased over the last 10 years,” the bureau reports. “In 2009, 56 percent of 1- and 2-year-olds above poverty were read to seven or more times a week, compared with 45 percent below the poverty level. However, while parental reading involvement for children above poverty was not different from rates in 1998, it rose from 37 percent for those below poverty.”

Sheila Smith, early childhood director for the National Center for Children in Poverty, based in New York City, is encouraged by the new data. “We might almost expect the opposite trend because of the economic pressures,” Smith tells Ed Week. “When parents are under greater economic pressure, they may have less time and be under more stress and risk of depression. But on the other hand, there has really been a kind of convergence of new efforts to make parents aware of how important parent involvement in general, and reading with children in particular, are to school readiness and success.”

The glimpse into parent-child interaction comes from “Selected Indicators of Child Well-Being (A Child’s Day): 2009,” which uses data from the bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation, as did a similar 1999 analysis.  The 2009 report, the bureau’s news release notes, also finds increasing numbers of children regularly eating dinner with a parent, engaging in conversation or play with a parent, and being praised by a parent:

Research shows that the frequency and quality of parent-child interactions plays a critical role in children’s language development and literacy. The 1995 landmark Hart-Risley study found that young children whose parents hold professional jobs heard 3 ½ times more words an hour than children whose parents were on welfare. Research also shows that teaching low-income parents about ways to use play and conversation to improve their children’s language development has a positive impact.

“It’s not management language like, ‘Do this, do that,’ ” Smith tells Ed Week. “Instead it’s, ‘Oh, remember what we did on the number-six bus going to the dentist?’ It’s language that tends to be more complex in syntax and structure. That’s the kind of language that helps children learn to read.”