BUFFALO, N.Y. — A University at Buffalo education
professor has sided with the environment in the timeless
“nurture vs. nature” debate after his research found
that a child’s ability to read depends mostly on where that
child is born, rather than on his or her individual qualities.
“Individual characteristics explain only 9 percent of the
differences in children who can read versus those who
cannot,” says Ming Ming Chiu, lead author of an international
study that explains this connection and a professor in the
Department of Learning and Instruction in UB’s Graduate
School of Education.
“In contrast, country differences account for 61 percent
and school differences account for 30 percent,” Chiu
Therefore, he concludes, the country in which a child is born
largely determines whether he or she will have at least basic
reading skills. It’s clearly a case where
“nurture” — the environment and surroundings of
the child — is more important than “nature”
— the child’s inherited, individual qualities,
according to Chiu.
More than 99 percent of fourth-graders in the Netherlands can
read, but only 19 percent of fourth-graders in South Africa can
read, Chiu notes.
“Although the richest countries typically have high
literacy rates exceeding 97 percent,” he says, “some
rich countries, such as Qatar and Kuwait, have low literacy rates
— 33 percent and 28 percent, respectively.”
The study, “Ecological, Psychological and Cognitive
Components of Reading Difficulties: Testing the Component Model of
Reading in Fourth-graders Across 38 Countries,” analyzed
reading test scores of 186,725 fourth-graders from 38 countries,
including more than 4,000 children from the U.S. Chiu and
co-authors Catherine McBride-Chang of the Chinese University of
Hong Kong and Dan Lin of the Hong Kong Institute of Education
published the study in the winter 2013 issue of the Journal of
The educators used data from the Organization for Economic
Cooperation and Development’s Program for International
Besides showing that the country of origin was a better
predictor of reading skills than individual traits, the study also
showed that other attributes at the child, school and country
levels were all related to reading.
First, girls were more likely than boys to have basic reading
skills, Chiu says. Children with greater early-literacy skills,
better attitudes about reading or greater self-confidence in their
reading ability also were more likely to have strong basic reading
“Children were more likely to have basic reading skills if
they were from privileged families, as measured through
socioeconomic status, number of books at home and parent attitudes
about reading,” says Chiu. “Also, children attending
schools with better school climate and more resources were more
likely to have basic reading skills.
“Our U.S. culture values ‘can-do’
individualism, but we forget how much depends on being lucky enough
to be born in the right place,” he says.