Institute of Education
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How big an influence do genes have on children's reading skills?
Why are children from lower social-class backgrounds generally poorer at reading than the sons and daughters of professionals?
One view — backed up by some research — is that the answer may lie largely in the genes. But an important new study from the Institute of Education, University of London, demonstrates why both policy-makers and the public should be wary of genetic explanations for educational attainment gaps between children in different socio-economic groups.
It found that three genes that are said to have a bearing on reading test scores (KIAA0319, CMIP and DCDC2) help to explain only 2 per cent of the performance gaps between children from different social classes.
The first two genes are associated with general reading ability and the third has been linked to reading disorders such as dyslexia. However, the IOE study concludes: "The influence of these three genes on children's reading ability is limited, and their role in producing socio-economic gaps even more limited still."
Dr John Jerrim and his colleagues reached these conclusions after analysing the reading scores of more than 5,000 children born in the West of England between 1991 and 1993. The children had all provided genetic information for the ongoing Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children. They also took a range of reading tests at ages 7, 9 and 11.
The new Institute of Education study is one of the first to use bio-molecular data encoded from the human genome to explain differences across socio-economic groups in a particular cognitive skill. It was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and also involved academics at the University of Cambridge, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and the University of Colorado.
The research revealed that:
The effects of the three genes that are believed to be particularly significant for reading ability are not only very small but sensitive to the type of test used.
Even if these genes do influence reading skills, there is little evidence that they are distributed unevenly across socio-economic groups.
The researchers say they focused on reading skills for two reasons. They are an important determinant of educational and occupational achievement and, secondly, because some studies of twins have suggested that genetic factors account for at least 75 per cent of the variance in children's reading skills.
This new research appears to challenge such claims. However, Dr Jerrim says it should be borne in mind that his study investigated the impact of only a small set of specific genes. "Many more genes may be implicated in the reading process – possibly hundreds, each with small, independent effects," he points out.
"We are not dismissing the role of genetics in influencing children's outcomes. We are simply cautioning that research of this kind is still in its infancy."
The executive summary of "The socio-economic gradient in children's reading skills and the role of genetics" will be posted on the Institute of Education website on June 7. Copies of the full paper can be provided on request. John Jerrim's co-authors are Anna Vignoles (University of Cambridge), Raghu Lingam (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine) and Angela Friend (University of Colorado).
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Notes for editors
1. Between April 1991 and December 1992 all pregnant women in the Avon district were asked to participate in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC). A total of 14,541 mothers were recruited into the study. They and their children have since been re-interviewed at regular intervals. Although the ALSPAC dataset cannot be considered representative of the national population, its demographic composition is broadly similar to the national one. Further information at http://www.bristol.ac.uk/alspac/
2. The researchers analysed the children's performance in six reading tests that were taken either in school as part of national curriculum assessments or in a clinic setting. These tests were used to gauge a range of reading skills including word recognition, reading speed and comprehension.
3. The human genome is a sequence of around 3 billion pairs of nucleotide molecules. Genes are sub-sequences within the human genome which are implicated in the building of proteins that influence the functioning of the body's cells. These genes are not identical across individuals.
4. In the study reported here, information on parental occupations was used to allocate families to one of five social class groups (Professional, Managerial /Technical, Skilled, Semi–skilled, Unskilled).
5. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC's total budget for 2012-13 is £205 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes. More at www.esrc.ac.uk
6. The Institute of Education is a college of the University of London that specialises in education and related areas of social science and professional practice. In the most recent Research Assessment Exercise two-thirds of the Institute's research activity was judged to be internationally significant and over a third was judged to be "world leading". The Institute was recognised by Ofsted in 2010 for its "high quality" initial teacher training programmes that inspire its students "to want to be outstanding teachers". The IOE is a member of the 1994 Group, which brings together 12 internationally renowned, research-intensive universities. More at www.ioe.ac.uk