Mothers' Reading Skills Linked to Improved Child Survival and Student Achievement

(August 2013) In Nigeria, where 10 percent of the world’s deaths to children occur, literate mothers are much less likely to see their children die before their fifth birthday than their illiterate peers, according to a new study published online in the journal, Demography.1 And having a mother who can read well also makes a difference for U.S. children, evidence shows. A 2010 study published in Demography found that Los Angeles mothers’ reading skills are the greatest determinant of their children’s academic achievement, outweighing other factors, such as neighborhood and family income.2

In Nigeria, Mothers’ Reading Skills Help Children Survive

In many developing countries, researchers have seem that mothers who spend even a few years in primary school increase the odds that their children will survive childhood. But the specific reasons remain unclear.

Reading skills gained in school may be the explanation. Education research shows that literate women are better able to comprehend health information and communicate with health providers, explained Emily Smith-Greenaway of the Pennsylvania State University, Population Research Institute.

“Reading enables mothers to understand written health information such as banners and brochures often used in public health campaigns,” she said. “And reading skills are also associated with greater comprehension of spoken messages, such as radio broadcasts, which are commonly used to spread health information in developing countries.”

For this study, Smith-Greenaway used data from the Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey, examining mothers’ formal education levels, reading skills, and child mortality. She focused on women who never attended secondary school and their children, resulting in a sample of more than 9,000 socioeconomically disadvantaged children who tend to have high mortality rates.

Although she found a direct increase in the number of women who could read with each additional year of primary school, she also found many who attended several years of school had no reading skills. “Among women who attended five years of primary school—a common international standard used to classify individuals as literate—less than one-half of the women (45 percent) were able to read,” she said.

Even when she took into account other factors known to influence child survival—socioeconomic status and reproductive behaviors such as prenatal care and birth spacing—mothers’ reading skills remained strongly linked to child survival. Specifically, among children whose mothers have the same level of formal schooling, children whose mothers can read have a 28 percent lower risk of mortality compared to their peers whose mothers lack reading skills.

“These findings demonstrate that female school enrollment is not a panacea for child mortality. It’s only the first step,” said Smith-Greenaway. “Equally important is improving school quality in ways that increase the likelihood that young women leave primary education able to read.”

The results suggest that literacy campaigns and other innovative reading instruction programs that take place outside of the formal education system could have widespread health benefits, potentially improving child survival; 42 percent of primary-school-age Nigerian girls are currently not enrolled in school, she noted.

In U.S., Mothers’ Reading Skills Linked to Student Achievement

Narayan Sastry of the University of Michigan, and Anne R. Pebley of the University of California, Los Angeles, undertook a study to isolate factors contributing to the disparity in academic achievement between children in low-income and affluent neighborhoods.

After mothers’ reading level, neighborhood income level was the largest determinant of children’s reading and mathematics scores.

The analysis was based on data collected as part of the Los Angeles Family and Neighborhood Survey, an ongoing examination of families in 65 Los Angeles county communities. The information included the results of reading and math assessments of 2,350 children ages 3 to 17; their mothers’ education level and reading test scores; census records of neighborhood income; and family income and assets. The participants in the study were representative of the larger Los Angeles area.

The link between mothers’ reading skills and student achievement likely reflects the “home learning environment,” according to the researchers. In other studies, the researchers found that “mothers with higher reading scores were more likely to read to children regularly, to have children’s books in the house, and to enjoy reading themselves—all behaviors that can contribute to children’s reading skills,” they reported.

Neighborhood income had the largest impact on achievement for children ages 8 to 17, who are at the middle and higher end of the age range. This is consistent with the idea that the environment outside the home becomes more important as children grow older, they said.

“This analysis gives us a chance to isolate the different factors that affect children’s achievement,” Sastry said. “Policy measures to build mothers’ reading skills, encourage mixed-income neighborhoods, and improve early childhood education could have positive effects on children’s achievement scores.”

Paola Scommegna is a senior writer/editor at the Population Reference Bureau.


  1. Emily Smith-Greenaway, “Maternal Reading Skills and Child Mortality in Nigeria: A Reassessment of Why Education Matters,” Demography (forthcoming), published online April 17, 2013.
  2. Narayan Sastry and Anne Pebley, “Family and Neighborhood Sources of Socioeconomic Inequality in Children’s Achievement,” Demography 47, no. 3 (2010): 777-800.