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The Harvard Family Research Project separated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education to become the Global Family Research Project as of January 1, 2017. It is no longer affiliated with Harvard University.

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About Family Involvement Research Digests

Harvard Family Research Project's (HFRP) Family Involvement Research Digests summarize research written and published by non-HFRP authors and/or written by HFRP authors but published by organizations other than HFRP.  For more information on the research summarized in this digest, please contact the author ar the address below. For help citing this article, click here.

Research Background

In the past decade, research on preschool children's literacy development in the U.S. has focused on mothers reading stories to their preschool children, with many scholars emphasizing the relationship between book-reading experiences and literacy development (Goldfield & Snow, 1984; Snow, 1983; Dickinson & Snow, 1987; Snow & Ninio, 1986; Teale, 1986). Members of different cultures, however, may have different perspectives about the role of home book-reading activities. Van Kleeck and Stahl (2003) point out that, “the research on book sharing often endorses, either implicitly or explicitly, very particular cultural and political viewpoints” (p. viii).

Japan is an interesting case to compare with the U.S. to enrich our understanding of cross-cultural differences in home book-reading practices, and shed light on the great cultural diversity of reading practices at home. In this project I explored Japanese mothers' reading practices and beliefs about book-reading activities at home by conducting studies on: (1) Japanese and American mothers' beliefs about reading to children; (2) middle-class Japanese mothers' and middle-class American mothers' patterns of reading books with their children; and (3) Japanese mothers' reading different types of books with their children.

Research Method

In Study 1, I examined beliefs in Japan and the U.S. using a maternal questionnaire about book-reading practices with three and five year olds at home. The mothers who participated in this study were recruited in middle-class neighborhoods in both Japan and the U.S. To collect data on Japanese mothers, I asked the directors of three preschools located in three different communities near Osaka to distribute my questionnaire to mothers in the three-year-old and five-year-old classes. To collect data on American mothers, I also asked the directors of five preschools located in three different communities in the Boston area to distribute my questionnaire to mothers in both the three-year-old and five-year-old classes. I recruited fewer preschools in Japan because class sizes are larger in Japan than in the U.S., giving me access to a greater number of potential participants at each Japanese preschool. The mothers who participated in this study are all middle class and college educated. Questions investigated home book-reading practices, such as when mothers start reading books with children, when and how often they read, what types of books they read, what benefits they believe reading brings to children, and how they believe children should prepare before they begin first grade.

Study 2 examined differences in the verbal interactions that middle-class American and middle-class Japanese mothers engage in while reading a picture book with their three year olds, a task commonly used in research on emergent literacy. I compared my observations of 16 middle-class Japanese mother-child dyads to parallel data collected by a U.S. researcher, Anne van Kleeck (van Kleeck, Gillam, Hamilton & McGrath, 1997). I looked for differences in the predominant strategies (e.g., labeling, paraphrasing, requesting information) that Japanese and American mothers used during book-reading. I also examined whether Japanese mothers displayed a print focus similar to that described for many middle-class American mothers.

Study 3 was an intensive analysis of Japanese mothers reading different types of books to their preschool children (two to five years old). Forty middle-class Japanese mother-child dyads—including the 16 dyads in Study 2—participated in Study 3. I examined whether Japanese mothers use different strategies when reading books with different characteristics (text and pictures versus pictures alone, familiar versus unfamiliar).

Research Findings

Different Maternal Beliefs and Practices
In Study 1, I found significant differences between Japanese and American mothers in three areas of home book-reading practices:

  1. Japanese mothers reported starting reading books with children about nine months later than American mothers.
  2. Japanese mothers reported reading more folklore, and considered this an opportunity to teach important cultural values and discipline.
  3. American mothers reported reading more ABC and counting books, and considered this an opportunity to teach literacy skills. Far fewer Japanese mothers reported believing that children can develop language and literacy skills from book reading.

Different Book Reading Interactions
In Study 2, I found differences in the book-reading interactions between middle-class Japanese and American mothers, supporting prior research findings that Japanese mother-child interactions tend to be nonverbal while their American counterparts are more verbal. Japanese mothers made the book-reading activities easier for the children without asking challenging questions. This approach reflects their view of children as dependent on parent guidance. When educating young children, the Japanese believe that young children are not yet able to follow the orders of others, so parents relate to children in more relaxed ways (Benedict, 1946; Norbeck & Norbeck, 1956). In contrast, the American mothers challenged their children by breaking up the text with different types of questions. They appeared to be demonstrating how the children could become independent readers.

This difference in verbal interaction is also seen among children. American children asked more questions than the Japanese children. Children's questions led mothers to produce more and different types of utterances. For example, mothers need to provide explanations when children ask “why” type questions. In this respect, American mothers' utterances were driven by their children's questions. On the other hand, Japanese children were rather quiet during book reading. Having a sunao na ko or obedient child is an important child-rearing goal in Japan, according to White and LeVine (1986). Japanese children show this characteristic when reading books with their mothers.

Altogether the findings indicate the different status children hold in each society. The American mother-child dyads had more communicative talk than did their Japanese counterparts, indicating that American children are seen as the conversation partners of adults while Japanese children are regarded as minors who depend on and follow adults.

Characteristics of Japanese Mothers' Reading Behavior
In Study 3, I found that Japanese mothers use different strategies when reading books with different characteristics (familiar versus unfamiliar, text and pictures versus pictures alone). Japanese mothers:

  • Provided more information during unfamiliar book reading. They discussed what happened, evaluated the actions of story characters or events, and described pictures more during unfamiliar book reading.
  • Related the story to the children's lives and explained vocabulary more with the unfamiliar book.
  • Produced the most utterances when reading the wordless book. They had topic-extending talk most often with the wordless book.
  • Used different reading approaches with children of different ages. Mothers of three year olds provided children with more information than mothers of five year olds.
  • Employed different reading approaches when reading different types of books. Mothers of thee year olds paraphrased more and described pictures more than mothers of five year olds. Mothers of five year olds, on the other hand, recalled what happened earlier in the story with children.
  • Were much less likely to ask questions that children cannot answer. Instead, they emphasize much more affective and relational benefits in book reading that preserve interpersonal harmony. For example, they simplified the text, described events in the story, and asked children to describe pictures.
  • Altogether, mothers fostered children's literacy skills by providing a safe and accommodating relationship, based on their perceptions of a child's developmental status.

Implications for Practice

The differences I found between Japanese and American mothers in this project show different expectations of and approaches to children's literacy development. These differences are reflective of their cultural values. In this respect, both groups of mothers show their culturally specific beliefs and practices. Middle-class American mothers act in a sense like a “teacher as examiner.” They ask challenging questions which anticipate some of the intellectual demands of the elementary school classrooms that the children will face in a couple of years. However, not all children come from middle-class homes. Given the cultural and language diversity in the U.S. it is important for teachers to be aware that their students' home literacy experiences may not be like the middle-class American mother-child interactions. In contrast, Japanese mothers preserve interpersonal harmony by asking children questions that they can answer. However, this interaction is not always the case in school situations. Japanese teachers need to help students make a transition from a home learning environment to a school learning environment.


Benedict, R. (1946). The chrysanthemum and the sword. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Dickinson, D. K., & Snow, C. E. (1987). Interrelationships among prereading and oral language skills in kindergartners from two social classes. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 2, 1–25.

Goldfield, B. A., & Snow, C. E. (1984). Reading books with children: The mechanics of parental influence on children's reading achievement. In J. Flood (Ed.), Promoting reading comprehension. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Norbeck, E., & Norbeck, M. (1956). Child training in a Japanese fishing community. In D. Haring (Ed.), Personal character and cultural milieu (pp. 650–673). Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

Snow, C. E. (1983). Literacy and language: Relationships during the preschool years. Harvard Educational Review, 53, 165–189.

Snow, C. E., & Ninio, A. (1986). The contracts of literacy: What children learn from learning to read books. In W. H. Teale & E. Sulzby (Eds.), Emergent literacy: Writing and reading (pp. 116–138). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Teale, W. H. (1986). Home background and young children's literacy development. In W. H. Teale & E. Sulzby (Eds.), Emergent literacy: Writing and reading (pp. 173–206). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

van Kleeck, A., Gillam, R. B., Hamilton, L., & McGrath, C. (1997). The relationship between middle-class parents' book-sharing discussion and their preschoolers' language development. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 40, 1261–1271.

van Kleeck, A., & Stalh, S. A. (2003). Preface. In A. van Kleeck, S. A. Stahl & E. B. Bauer (Eds.), On reading books to children (pp. vii-xiii). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

White, M., & LeVine, R. (1986). What is ii ko (good child)? In H. Stevenson, H. Azuma & K. Hakuta (Eds.) Child development and education in Japan (pp. 55–62). New York: Freeman.


Eiko Kato-Otani, Ed.D.
Osaka Jogakuin College
2-26-54 Tamatsukuri
Chuo-ku, Osaka 540-0004, Japan

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