Literacy and children in poverty

The connection between poverty and illiteracy

Poverty often has a dramatic impact on children’s literacy. Research by the Annie E. Casey Foundation finds that 82 percent of fourth graders from low-income families were not able to reach the “proficient” level in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Being unable to read well in the elementary grades is often a signal of lifelong problems that lie ahead. Sociologist Donald Hernandez reports that “children who are not able to read proficiently by the end of third grade are four times more likely to leave high school without a diploma” than their peers who are proficient in reading.

What are some of the barriers to literacy that children who are poor face? One major problem is a lack of access to books at home and sometimes at school as well. In "Giving Our Children a Fighting Chance," authors Susan B. Neuman and Donna C. Celano found that in one neighborhood of poverty in Philadelphia, there were only 358 reading resources available for about 7,000 children. A well-to-do neighborhood in the same city had 16,453 reading resources for only 1,200 children.

Foundations for literacy are laid in the language that infants, toddlers and preschool-aged children hear every day. Low-income families tend to engage in less conversation with their children and often use smaller vocabularies in conversation. “By age three, children from affluent families have on average heard 30 million more words than children from low-income families.” Neuman explains that books are essential to expanding children’s vocabulary because “even very rudimentary … board books have vocabulary that tends to be outside the parent’s normal, day-to-day interaction. So that child is learning words that he or she is likely not to see in any other place.”

Of course, families who can’t afford books aren’t able to share them with their children. The lack of access to books at home is compounded by the fact that 80 percent of preschool and afterschool programs that serve low-income children do not have children’s books either, usually because of a lack of funds to purchase them. “A poor child goes from a home without books to a preschool situation without books,” Neuman says. “That creates serious problems for literacy later on.”

Getting books into the hands of children who need them

Can something as simple as having more books in the home have a significant impact on children’s reading abilities? A large study of 70,000 students in 27 countries found that having many books in the home was as good a predictor of educational success as the family’s income or the father’s occupation.

There are many charitable organizations working to get books into the hands of children who are poor, including the Imagination Library founded by Dolly Parton. The program began in Parton’s East Tennessee home in the mid-1990’s, where she committed to provide a new, age-appropriate book each month to every preschool-aged child. Through partnerships with local communities, more than 750,000 children from birth to age five now receive a free book each month in more than 1,600 local communities in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

The First Book Marketplace provides schools and nonprofits serving children in need the chance to buy books at 50 to 90 percent off the retail price. First Book’s cofounder Kyle Zimmer says they sell the books to “virtually anybody serving children in need, from zero to 18 years of age. It can be a homeless shelter; it can be a formal classroom; it can be [an] abuse refuge; it can be really anyplace where kids are gathered.” Sometimes, daycare centers and schools purchase books to stock their bare bookshelves, and many other books are given to children to take home and keep.

At the National Children’s Center in Washington, DC, children had the chance to pick out two books each to keep after a recent story time. Andrea Brunk, a physical therapist at the center, says the variety of ageappropriate, culturally diverse books available from First Book is greatly appreciated.

Early intervention programs equip parents for success

Access to books is key in improving literacy, but in many cases families can also benefit from programs that address the needs of the whole child from a very young age. For example, the antipoverty organization Save the Children has a home visitor program in many US communities. The program trains local community members to visit with low-income parents beginning during pregnancy and continuing until age three to help them develop many different kinds of parenting skills.

A 2012 New York Times article followed home visitor Courtney Trent as she visited mothers and fathers to encourage parents to read to their children, talk to them, touch them and tell them stories. She brought a small collection of books families could borrow on each visit. If parents had trouble reading themselves, Trent encouraged them to look through the picture books with their child and talk about what they saw.

Ron Combs, the principal at an elementary school in a Kentucky community where Save the Children works, said that “when the kids come to us through this program, we can see a big difference. They’re really ready to go. Otherwise, we have kids so far behind that they struggle to catch up.” 

Creating a passion for reading at school

Jim Trelease, author of "The Read Aloud Handbook," points to two big habits teachers can cultivate in the classroom to help their students fall in love with books: reading aloud to the class, even to older students, and having daily time for sustained silent reading.

Trelease points not only to the vocabulary that is built when children regularly hear books read aloud, but also to the “background knowledge” that they build over time. Especially for impoverished children whose parents aren’t able to take them on regular visits to museums, the zoo, historic sites or on trips around the country or across the world, Trelease says, “the best way to accumulate background knowledge is either by reading or being read to.”

Reading aloud can also help children become excited about moving up to the next level of reading, as they’re able to comprehend more complex words and stories when heard aloud than they are able to read themselves. In order for children to become better readers, they must read frequently. For children to read more frequently, they need to want to read.

Sustained silent reading is a practice of setting aside specific time each day (for example, ten minutes) for all students and the teacher to read silently whatever books they choose for pleasure. No reports are required on the book, and no tests are given. High school English teacher Kay McSpadden says that since implementing sustained silent reading years ago, “I haven’t tracked reading scores or gathered any formal data, but I can see that the vast majority of students enjoy reading this way — and getting reluctant students to enjoy reading goes a long way to making them more successful in school.”

What can people of faith do?

There are many ways that people of faith and churches can support efforts to increase literacy among poor children: conducting book drives, contributing to organizations that provide free or low-cost books, volunteering as tutors and more. Churches can also create programs to help prevent the “summer slide” in which many students lose some of the reading and math knowledge they’ve gained. In addition to hands-on efforts around literacy, in some cases, advocacy by people of faith may be needed. As state budgets tighten, some literacy and parenting programs have been on the chopping block. For example, the Alaska Legislature and the governor recently voted to cut $3.2 million from social service programs for infants and toddlers, including cuts to the Parents as Teachers program and to “Best Beginnings, which administers the Dolly Parton Imagination Library” throughout Alaska.

The witness of Scripture shows us over and over again that God uplifts those who are vulnerable and in poverty, and that we are called to pay special attention to the needs of those who live in poverty. Ensuring that all children are able to become active readers is one way to respond to this call.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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