Parents of young children have long been told that the number one predictor of reading success in their children is the act of reading aloud to them. However, a new study by National Center for Children and Families at Teacher's College, Columbia University suggests that other elements in a young child's home environment may play a larger role in reading development than previously thought. The most surprising factor? The level of “chaos,” specifically household disorder, in an early reader's home environment.

For parents that consider themselves lucky to catch a glimpse of the floor under their children's clutter, this news may come as a shock. But according to Anna Johnson, the lead author of the study, “chaos” is actually a specific construct that takes into account not only general untidiness, but “crowding” (either people per room or people per square foot), noise, transitions (moving house often), and routines (such as eating dinner every night or having the same bedtime ritual).

Reading aloud to your child has been thought of as the major component for reading success. But the study, controlled for socio-economic status, showed that other variables may well come into play. “What we found was that some of the home literacy environment components that mattered were more unusual, such as how often a child entertains himself alone with a book,” says Johnson.

Surprisingly, however, the study found different results between literacy development of children with mothers of average reading ability and those of above average reading ability. “Household order explained literacy growth only among children of mothers who were above average readers,” says Johnson. In contrast, child-initiated elements such as how often a child brings books home or spends time alone with books explained literacy growth among children of mothers who were average readers.

What do these new findings mean for parents of beginning readers? Although Johnson cautions against jumping to conclusions before the results of the study have been replicated, she says that different households may find that different reading strategies work best for them. “For mothers who are average readers, it looks like it could be very useful to make books available and give access to your child. It looks like for mothers who may be very busy – perhaps professionals who are high functioning with respect to reading - maybe their kids can benefit by having an organized house that has a series of regular routines,” suggest Johnson. “And don't resist the urge to pick up the broom.”

Want more unusual ideas for aiding reading development at home? Here are some out of the box ideas for fostering reading:

  • Take your child to the library to sign up for his very own library card. Having his own card will make your child feel a sense of excitement and motivation around books and reading. While you're there, challenge your child to a library treasure hunt using the call numbers and letters on the spines of shelved books.
  • Sneak reading practice into regular playtime. There are lots of ways that you can work literacy learning into fun and easy activities. Go pretend fishing for words, play post-it bingo, or practice a cup toss game for a literacy lesson that's inspired by the classic carnival challenge.
  • Books form the foundation of early reading, and having them around is just the beginning of the different ways that they can inspire your child. Not only can kids begin to appreciate books by looking at and reading them, they can also begin to create books of their own! For a some fun book creation ideas, try Story Starters: A Book Making Activity, making a nonsense book, or creating an ABC nature book.