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Print-Rich Environment

By Jeannette Webb
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #95, 2010.

Nothing promotes learning like a house full of books.

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Jeannette Webb


Pile of books As a young homeschool mom, I was busy in my son’s room dusting and re-shelving some books one afternoon. After dumping several hundred volumes on his bed, I was called away and promptly forgot all about them. My eight-year-old son headed to bed that night, but soon reemerged from his room with a grin on his face, “Mom, this print-rich environment is getting in the way of my napping environment!”

A Print Rich Environment

Chris and Ellyn Davis of the Elijah Company introduced me to the term “Print Rich Environment”—having a home filled with good books to foster a love of learning. They built their case by citing Cradles of Eminence, a study of 400 famous men and women of the 20th century that concluded (among other things), “A rule of thumb for predicting success is to know the number of books in the home. . .”

Now, I had been shopping for wonderful children’s books since before my children were born. But after reading the Davis’s comments in the infancy of my homeschooling endeavor, I ramped up my efforts to create a library that would nurture my small children’s developing minds. As a young mother, I wanted to create an atmosphere in our home that would cultivate a love of learning and develop the habit of logical, sequential thinking. I wanted my children to interact with the world’s greatest thinkers and to wrestle with their ideas. In short, I wanted them to have a better education than I had.

I began going to library sales, checking bargain book racks, scouring catalogs for the best that was available. I memorized recommended lists from wonderful books like Gladys Hunt’s trilogy: Honey for a Child’s Heart, Honey for a Teen’s Heart, and Honey for a Woman’s Heart. I utilized Books Children Love by Elizabeth Wilson and Who Should We Then Read? By Jan Bloom.

Set the Example

If we are to teach our children to love good books, we must lead the way. I embraced Charlotte Mason’s advice: “Never be without a good book on hand. If you will read and ponder, you will find that it stimulates your educational thought in many directions and keeps you from drifting into mere routine. Do not think this is a selfish thing to do, because the advance does not end with yourself.”

She recommended keeping three books on hand to read besides the Bible: a stiff book (something challenging like C. S. Lewis), a moderately easy book (perhaps a biography), and a novel (something like Jane Austen or Elizabeth Goudge). She suggested that we pick the one we most want to read each day. By the end of a year, it is amazing what we can get through!

A Home Library

Even though our home library has been radically culled on a few occasions, it now stands at about 4,000 volumes and is still growing. Though it was an expensive time-consuming endeavor and has required dusting and packing and building shelving through the years, I would do it again in a heartbeat. It was my gift to my children and will be my legacy to my grandchildren.

There is certainly a place for the use of a public library (and we did frequent ours), but there are several reasons to build your own.

Teachable Moments

Teachable moments are fleeting. Let me give you an example. As I write, we are in the middle of dealing with the remains of a winter ice storm. The landscape is perfectly white, which is probably why I noticed a rather unusual thing this morning. To my amazement, a fairly large bobcat walked calmly under my office window and circled the perimeter of the house, probably looking for mice or rabbits. While I see a lot of wildlife out my window (no human habitations visible clear to the horizon), a large predator like a bobcat is fairly rare, especially so close to a house and in the open.

When my children were young and such things happened, we would pull out books and try to identify just exactly what we had seen. Then we would find other informative books and read about the bird, animal, tree leaf, insect, or mineral we had just discovered.

Of course, the secret to being able to follow the kids’ curiosity was to have a well-stocked library at home. If I had to wait for a trip to town to check out a book from the library, my little children would have already lost interest. By being able to follow up immediately, their interest was often piqued for weeks.

Sometimes I would quickly design a unit study to make the most of the chance encounter. Here is how this worked. On an easily accessible shelf in the main part of the house, we kept our collection of books to answer practical questions:

  • Identification books about insects, birds, trees, spiders, rocks, native plants, clouds, etc., that allowed us to name things
  • Dictionaries and a thesaurus, to answer word questions or spelling
  • Different types of atlases, to answer geographical questions
  • Encyclopedias, to give us a quick reference to a person or place

Often the kids would burst through the door after working in the garden or exploring the canyon and plop down in front of the bookshelves in the entry and pull out a book to answer their burning questions. In the evenings at supper, it was a common occurrence for someone to leave the table and grab the encyclopedia or an atlas to clarify a point. Books became a natural part of the ebb and flow of our lives.

Public Library Shelves Are Changing

A second reason to purchase your own books is that as our society becomes more politically correct, many libraries no longer contain as many classic primary source documents or other worthwhile books. To stay current, libraries continually have to clear some shelf space for current topics of interest. Today that means multiculturalism (instead of classic Americana), teen culture, and junk fiction. It is getting harder and harder to find the things we want. When someone in our homeschool group needed George Washington’s Farewell Address, they called me because the public library did not have it and they figured that I would. I did.

Books Don’t Stay in Print Forever

Many of my most treasured books that I repeatedly turn to are no longer available, even in rare book searches. If you want to guarantee that your children and grandchildren have the best reading material, it is wise to procure it when it is available. Think of it as investing generationally.

You Have to Own the Book to Interact With It

Some books become best friends that are pulled off the shelf again and again. They comfort, inspire, speak to our hearts, or give us the courage to keep going. These sorts of friends need to be accessible at all hours of the day and night.

We also have to consider the handling of books that act as instructors. While my children learned to treat books carefully even before they could talk clearly and their childhood books are still in pristine condition, as they got older and began reading books that required an opinion, their relationship with books changed. My children and I underline, make notes, ask questions, and argue in the margins. The material becomes ours in the process; however, public libraries tend to frown on these practices.

More Books Leads to More Education

Books in the home are as important as parents’ education level in determining level of education children will attain.

Whether rich or poor, residents of the United States or China, illiterate or college graduates, parents who have books in the home increase the level of education their children will attain, according to a 20-year study of over 70,000 cases in 20 countries, led by Mariah Evans, University of Nevada, Reno associate professor of sociology and resource economics.

For years, educators have thought the strongest predictor of attaining high levels of education was having parents who were highly educated. But, strikingly, this massive study showed that the difference between being raised in a bookless home compared to being raised in a home with a 500-book library has as great an effect on the level of education a child will attain as having parents who are barely literate (3 years of education) compared to having parents who have a university education (15 or 16 years of education). Both factors, having a 500-book library or having university-educated parents, propel a child 3.2 years further in education, on average.

As a sociologist, Evans was particularly interested to find that children of lesser-educated parents benefit the most from having books in the home. She has been looking for ways to help Nevada’s rural communities, in terms of economic development and education.

Evans said, “Even a little bit goes a long way,” in terms of the number of books in a home. Having as few as 20 books in the home still has a significant impact on propelling a child to a higher level of education, and the more books you add, the greater the benefit.

“You get a lot of ‘bang for your book’,” she said. “It’s quite a good return-on-investment in a time of scarce resources.”

The study by Evans and her colleagues at Nevada, UCLA and Australian National University is one of the largest and most comprehensive studies ever conducted on what influences the level of education a child will attain.

Personal Books

Each child needs his or her own personal library. This started at birth when the kids had their own shelf of books in their room. Of course we always had a family read-aloud going, but their special books were on a low shelf and were the ones they would look at or bring me to read to them for naptime stories. As they got older and learned to read for themselves, their shelves began to hold their favorite authors that they could read whenever they wanted to. They often spent their allowance money on books. When they began to have unique interests—be it the American Civil War, physics, knitting, or music history—the entire family (including grandparents) was on the lookout for books in the field. Today, each of my children has a unique library of their own ranging from favorite picture books to classics to technical treatises in their career fields.

Gift Books

Because the Christ Child received three gifts on his birthday, we also limited our children’s Christmas gifts to three. One was something they needed like a piece of clothing. One was something they wanted. One was a big stack of books—usually our most extravagant purchase and their favorite gift. Christmas afternoon was always spent curled up on the couch reading.

Vacation Books

When the children were young, we were desperately poor. However, we always bought memberships to the huge metropolitan library sale preview event. We strapped a huge empty box to a roller cart and fanned out, each person heading to his or her favorite area. We would come back to Dad and the cart with books heaped up in our arms, deposit the books, and sprint to the next section. By the end of the evening, the box was overflowing and checkout was time consuming. Sometimes we spent close to $100 (a huge expenditure for us) for hundreds of treasures that would be our vacation, our entertainment, and our learning for the coming year.

We didn’t have the resources to take physical vacations of any kind, but from our couch we circumvented the globe, went back in history, and forward in time.

Did it Work?

As I look back over our homeschool experiment, I would have to say that our library and our constant discussions did indeed foster a love of learning. It is a delight to watch my now-adult children continually wrestle with ideas found in books, engage world-renowned professors with hard questions, and constantly enrich their minds with the thoughts of great men and women. Our daily discussions almost always reference a new book they are reading or a suggestion for a book I would like or a new thought they are grappling with.

I would have to agree with Anna Quindlen who wrote in the New York Times, “I would be most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves.”

Jeannette Webb has worked with high school students for over 25 years, helping them develop public speaking, leadership, and interview skills, as well as prepare effective scholarship applications. As Oklahoma State University’s first Truman Scholar (the American equivalent of the Rhodes Scholar), she went on to receive a B.S. in Human Development and an M.S. in Family Economics. She spent a decade with the OSU Cooperative Extension Service as 4–H and Youth Development Specialist and Resource Management Specialist before she became a home educator in 1993. A former OCHEC Trustee, she has also been a support group leader and conference speaker. In 2005, Jeannette received a Presidential Scholar Distinguished Teacher Award. Jeannette teaches “Homeschooling Through High School” seminars and is a college coach dedicated to helping homeschool students matriculate to America’s top colleges, including her own two homeschool graduates, who are now attending top colleges. She can be reached through aiminghigherconsultants.com.


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