Let kids have it with both barrels. Blast them with an activity that answers many daily challenges of childhood: quality time with books. Parent-survival kits should include an arsenal of literacy activities as regular parts of household life. Ants in pants? Go on a book adventure. Bored? Enjoy a read-aloud. Bad attitude? Laugh through a silly story.
This call to arms—the recommendation to bring books into family life—is not just a fun idea for snuggle time. A whole generation’s academic future depends upon it. Long-standing statistics about low-income communities within the city of Philadelphia show that there may exist only a few dozen books in a community of 10,000 children.
These numbers are not unique to a single city or neighborhood—they are repeated across the country. Books are simply not finding their way into homes. This problem will only deepen the strain on the public education system, since a majority of students in public schools are currently from low-income families.
Watching Families Interact in Libraries
Susan Neuman, the researcher who unearthed the paltry books-to-child ratio in certain communities, has observed family behaviors and interactions in public libraries in two different Philadelphia neighborhoods—one affluent and one impoverished—over the course of years. The main difference she observed? How much the adults, whether parent, grandparent, or nanny, interact with the children during the visit, and how they use the library itself.
The adults in the library in the low-income neighborhood interacted less with the children and read far fewer minutes with the children, if at all. They borrowed books and used computers less for pleasure and more for function, such as solving problems related to housing, education, or employment. In short, the cares of life and their families’ immediate needs relegated literacy activity to reading for necessity. Others in New Orleans see how this view of literacy may even translate into how parents choose schools for their children, when choice is available. Low-income parents frequently choose schools near their home with extracurricular activities and before- and after-care, rather than schools with better academic achievement.
The issue is not simply that families do not have access to libraries and books—they often do. The issue is more central to family dynamics: literacy activities are consigned to classrooms and neglected, for various reasons, at home. I should point out that there are certainly families with few resources that encourage daily reading, borrow books from the public library, and emphasize academic excellence. Some families are low-income because they choose to live on a single salary so one parent can focus on the children’s education and development.
Books Interest All Ages
The important fact is that parents who insert themselves most firmly into early literacy activities—participating in reading, conversation, and writing—and bring those activities into the home regularly provide the best academic foundation for their children. Parent involvement makes a greater difference than money. And children love to listen to books, especially when parents read, and the act of reading together promotes lifelong literacy because people enjoy it. It continues to be fun at any age, long after a child learns to read fluently. We all love a well-spun story.
Children instinctively move toward a person reading a book, just like toddlers automatically start to shimmy whenever they hear music, but it takes repeated exposure to print for children to build listening stamina enough to sit through a whole story and to interact with the characters, plot, and illustrations. I’m not talking about seeing 33 books in a childhood, but hundreds and perhaps thousands. Public libraries promote “100 by kindergarten,” or reading 100 books in the preschool years, to prepare for formal schooling. The plea for parents to read to young children and to expose them to hundreds of books before age five has been sounded for years. Neuman’s original 1999 study, for example, measured the impact of available books and literacy training for teachers on preschool classrooms. It demonstrated that valuable learning occurs when reading material is readily available and when the students have knowledgeable adults to guide them toward literacy activities.
Public libraries, individuals, and a whole host of organizations have partnered with assistance agencies and community leaders to get free books and library cards to parents at hospitals and pediatricians’ offices, aid offices, community centers, Head Start programs, and preschools. Some cities support mobile libraries that take literacy activities, story time, and books to communities with few resources. Preparing children for lifelong learning takes an army of adults armed with books to share the joy and skill of reading. Through these efforts and local libraries, books are available, but it requires families to take literacy seriously, even in the face of financial hardship.
Here’s How You Can Help
To parents with dozens of books on their shelves and regular family reading times, the idea that children begin kindergarten without enough exposure to books to know how to turn pages is incomprehensible. Yet teachers meet students each year with little or no literacy experience. Promoting literacy in low-income communities can begin small. Whenever you donate to a local cause, such as a crisis-pregnancy center, mission organization, or soup kitchen, include a book. Donate gently used books and support drives to distribute books at aid agencies and medical offices. Families may even consider volunteering to read books for public library or recreational center programs—and then give the books they read to the children who attend.
Books allow us to explore inner worlds, outer worlds, and other worlds. They build vocabulary and masterful sentence construction. The language of written text permeates what children speak and then eventually write themselves, helping them string together both words and thoughts in meaningful ways. Reading books aloud offers parents and children the meditative pace of a narrative and the time to process the words and images they hear. And reading with a parent promotes bonding and affection.
Armed with books, parents can fight for the future of their children. Family read-alouds briefly defy the troubles of life and provide ammunition for repelling the attacks of poverty on the academic success of children. So, families, read. Read as if your children’s learning depends upon it.