How well children read is largely down to their genes

Case

How well children read is largely down to their genes

If you can read well as a child then you like reading and read a lot. Research published this week shows that the converse is not true. In other words, the obvious line of thought that competent readers are so motivated because they have devoured bookcases of books is not actually correct. Therefore, how well children can read is to a large extent hereditary; how much children read is determined by both the genes and the environment.

Elsje van Bergen. Photo: Yvonne CompierElsje van Bergen. Photo: Yvonne Compier

Biological psychologist Elsje van Bergen (1981) is almost halfway through her Veni appointment at the VU Amsterdam. She is now heavily pregnant from her second child and she is lagging behind a bit on the standard Veni timetable. It is anybody's guess as to which would appear first: the article or the child. The article entitled "Why do children read more? The influence of reading ability on voluntary reading practices" in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, for which she is the first author, forms the provisional crown on her professional work.

Interaction between genes and environment

Van Bergen investigated the data from 6000 pairs of twins aged around seven years old and attending primary school. The comparison between identical and non-identical twins is interesting in this respect: non-identical twins have the same living environment but a different set of genes. How do these children develop? Van Bergen discovered that how well children can read influences how much they read and not vice versa. Furthermore, she and her co-authors found a strong genetic component for how well children can read. How many books children read depends just as much on the genetic disposition as on the living environment. And that is an entirely new finding.

Scores of twins in group 4 on a reading speed test. Each point represents the read scores of both children within a twin pair. It can be seen that identical twins look more like their twin brother or sister than two-egg twins. From this it can be concluded that differences between children are largely due to genetic differences.Scores of twins in group 4 on a reading speed test. Each point represents the read scores of both children within a twin pair. It can be seen that identical twins look more like their twin brother or sister than two-egg twins. From this it can be concluded that differences between children are largely due to genetic differences.

Reading research

Elsje van Bergen: ‘During the reading research we examined the influence of genes and that of the environment as well as the delicate interaction between these. Educationalists examine what is referred to as the "literacy of the home environment". In other words: parents who read a lot and who give their book collection a prominent place in the living room create a stimulating reading environment for children that encourages them to read. However, geneticists say: they not only need their parents' bookcase but also their genes. The outcomes of our research have resolved this chicken and the egg problem once and for all: you read well because you have a natural predisposition to do so.’

Did you know? In the Netherlands, the education is so good and egalitarian that differences between children and their ability to read can mainly be traced back to genetic differences.

Van Bergen is pleased with the unequivocal research outcome. ‘In the Netherlands, the education is so good and egalitarian that differences between children and their ability to read can mainly be traced back to genetic differences. That is a compliment for our education system. It does not matter how rich your parents are, because your ability to read lies in your genes. Some children naturally pick up reading quickly, whereas others have a genetic risk for dyslexia.’

2 young children reading on the couch, photo: ShutterstockPhoto: Shutterstock

The findings of Van Bergen and her co-authors show that the reading level of children influences how much they read. Children who find it difficult to read, for example due to dyslexia, therefore tend to avoid reading. In the case of reading skills the term hereditary is a difficult concept. In particular, the heredity component should not be viewed as deterministic, because dyslexia is highly hereditary and then one might have the attitude that nothing can be done about it, which is certainly not the case! With the right encouragement a lot can be achieved with these children. Interventions in education and parenting are therefore not solely aimed at facilitating the reading skills but also the motivation to read. Children with a genetically high risk of dyslexia benefit from a good reading intervention.’

My classmates told me: you'll become a professor one day. I had no idea what science was
- Elsje van Bergen

Elsje van Bergen's route into science was not so much a detour as a winding path. She was the third of five children from a middle-class environment – her father an owner of two furniture shops and her mother a teacher – in Landsmeer, a village just outside of Zaandam. As soon as she had completed secondary school she tore herself away from the ‘very stable but also small village world' and independently travelled to Latvia for a year where she attended a sort of "further education musical college". The lessons were in Latvian and so she was forced to pick up the language quickly. ‘My classmates told me: you'll become a professor one day. I had absolutely no idea what that meant. I had no idea what science was.’

As a first-year student, initially in a broad science course at Utrecht University but later gaining a degree in human movement sciences at VU Amsterdam, she became absolutely gripped by the scientific approach after just 1.5 lectures. ‘It was a very unique experience. I can remember sitting in the lecture theatre thinking: ah so that is how you investigate things. And then I really wanted to be a scientist. However it could have been an entirely different subject than what I have specialised in now, reading research.’

Resilience and perseverance

Van Bergen's initial experience with doing doctoral research as a human movement scientist was a disappointment due to a poor match with the project. ‘The people around me openly questioned whether doctoral research was too difficult for me as a gymnastics trainer (because I'm that as well). I terminated my PhD contract. I then ended up in an entirely new situation at the University of Amsterdam; a PhD position in educational sciences that I had applied for after seeing an ad in the paper. The people there had confidence in me. And so in 2013 I still managed to obtain my doctorate ("Who will develop dyslexia? Cognitive precursors in parents and children"). After that, thanks to the Rubicon grant, I had the good fortune to be able to go and work at University of Oxford with Dorothy Bishop: from human movement sciences, to educational sciences to psychology and behavioural genetics!’

Elsje van Bergen's Veni application was not quite successful the first time round. Her CV and research proposal scored well but her interview was disappointing. In a sort of "retake" – the possibility no longer exists – she was still awarded the grant. ‘Once you have obtained a Rubicon grant, as a researcher you end up in a sort of upward spiral: you have a higher chance of obtaining a Veni grant and as soon as you have acquired that you don't have to teach as much and you have more time to do research and write articles. It really is a considerable boost.’

Halfway through her Rubicon period she "dared" to approach Spinoza Prize laureate Dorret Boomsma (Netherlands Twin Register at VU Amsterdam) for a research position. The researcher's career is definitely not a straight line but she has nevertheless found her place. Van Bergen: ‘In science it is not so much who has the highest IQ but more importantly who has the most resilience. Being able to deal with disappointment, showing perseverance … these things are just as important.’

Further information


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