Study: Young children's interest in reading relates to behavior

May 19, 2011

Jennifer Dobbs-Oates, an assistant professor of developmental studies, has found there is a relationship between preschoolers' interest in literacy and their behavior in the classroom. Children who are more interested in literacy-related activities are more likely to show positive, adaptive behaviors than negative, disruptive kinds of behavior. The findings of this study, which focused on 61 predominantly low-income preschoolers ages 3-5, are published in the April edition of Early Child Development and Care. (Purdue University photo/Mark Simons)

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Preschoolers who enjoy spending time with a good book are more likely to behave better in the classroom, according to research from Purdue University.

"A child's interest in literacy can tell us a lot about that child's behavior," said Jennifer Dobbs-Oates, an assistant professor of developmental studies. "We found that the child who is interested in literacy-related activities is more likely to show positive, adaptive behavior than negative, disruptive kinds of behavior.

"We also found that girls were more interested in books compared to boys, and girls also were more likely to be better behaved. This study is a reminder that adults should encourage young children to spend time with books, especially books that appeal to individual children. A child's interest and level of enjoyment is key to this connection, but we also need to learn more about the cause and effect of this relationship."

The findings of this study, which focused on 61 predominantly low-income preschoolers ages 3-5, are published in the April edition of Early Child Development and Care.

Dobbs-Oates said there is little research in this area because interest in literacy activities is difficult to measure at such a young age. Most children this young aren't particularly reliable reporters of their own interests. Instead, the study asked parents about how often children seek out literacy-related activities and how much they seem to enjoy these activities. 

The gender difference found in this study is consistent with other aspects of child development, Dobbs-Oates said. For example, girls typically develop verbal skills more quickly than do boys. However, Dobbs-Oates said that more work needs to be done in this area because there are signs that children's literacy interest may be influenced by the choices adults make.

"One thing we need to examine more closely is whether our book choices for children are gendered," she said. "Often the books available in preschool classrooms and at homes are fairy tales and similar stories, and research suggests that little boys aren't drawn to these story formats as much as to non-fiction books on topics such as baseball, trains or rocks. Frankly, there aren't as many of these books out there and parents or teachers aren't as likely to choose them. We may be putting boys at a disadvantage by not providing a variety of books that would typically appeal to them. This makes it critical to keep the child's individual interests in mind when visiting a library or stocking a bookshelf."

The study's findings were determined by comparing how parents rated children's literacy interests to teachers' reports of that child's behavior. Literacy interest was measured based on the parents' report of a child's interest and enjoyment in looking at books or being read to by someone else.

A child's behavior was evaluated using two common teacher questionnaires that noted characteristics including aggression, positive actions, self-control when frustrated, social skills and attention problems. The children who were rated by teachers as being aggressive were rated by their parents as being less interested in reading related activities. The children who were rated by their teachers for strong and positive social skills also were rated by their parents as being more interested in reading related activities.

"It's like a three-legged stool - learning and behavior aren't enough, you also need to incorporate a child's interests and motivation," she said. "This is the gateway to learning because strengthening language and literacy skills comes before reading independently."

Another reason why literacy interest and behavior are connected is because books can provide a foundation of social skills for children to interact with peers and adults.

"If you are good at social skills, then you probably have good language skills, and that is going to relate to how much someone enjoys reading," said Dobbs-Oates, who also is looking at how parents' expectations and beliefs for their children relate to literacy and behavior.

Parental expectations regarding a student's grade completion and performance also played a role in this study. Parents who expected their child to maintain a higher grade average also reported their child had a strong interest in reading. A relationship was not found for parents' expectations about how far a child will continue his or her education.

"These expectations could be influenced by how much schooling the individual parents completed, but this is really the first time the relationship between parents' expectations and preschool children's interests in literacy activities have been evaluated so there is opportunity for further study," Dobbs-Oates said.

This study was supported a Kontos Fellowship from the Center for Families at Purdue, and Dobbs-Oates collaborated with Alison E. Baroody, a doctoral student in the Department of Child Development and Family Studies.

Writer: Amy Patterson Neubert, 765-494-9723,

Source: Jennifer Dobbs-Oates, 765-494-2931, 

Related website:
College of Health and Human Sciences

Note to Journalists: Journalists interested in a copy of the journal article can contact Amy Patterson Neubert, 765-494-9723,



Child and parent characteristics, parental expectations, and child behaviours related to preschool children's interest in literacy

Alison E. Baroody and Jennifer Dobbs-Oates

The current study examined the relations between children's literacy interest and parent and child characteristics (i.e. parents' education level and child's gender), parental expectations of their child's school attainment and achievement and the child's positive and problem behaviours. Participants were 61 preschoolers from predominantly low-income families enrolled in local preschool programmes. Parents completed questionnaires reporting demographic characteristics, parents' expectations and their child's literacy interest. Preschool teachers reported on children's behaviours in the classroom using standard behaviour-rating scales. Child gender was marginally related to child literacy interest, but parent education was not significantly correlated with interest. Parents' expectation of their child's school achievement was significantly correlated with child literacy interest, but parental expectations about attainment were not. Overall, teachers' reports of children's positive and problem behaviours were correlated with child literacy interest in the expected direction. Interpretation and implications of the findings and future directs for research are discussed.