Literacy Starts at Home, and so does Fighting Inequality

By Porshéa Patterson

This piece is a part of our Accio Books series, exploring issues related to literacy, education, and libraries. To find out more about how to get involved and support Accio Books, visit thehpalliance.org/accio_books.

Literacy is important not only because it allows you to read books for pleasure; it is also essential for navigating day-to-day life. For those of us who had access to quality literacy education from a young age, it can be easy to forgot how often we utilize literacy skills for activities other than book-reading. For those who struggle with literacy, it is impossible to forget. Reading is necessary when navigating street signs, applying for jobs, understanding medical instructions, voting, and much, much more. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, not everyone has equal access to the quality literacy education that is needed to thrive.

“Literacy is the foundation of community and economic development. When everyone can read, whole communities thrive.” Via Words Alive

Numerous studies have shown that low-income families own disproportionately fewer books than their middle and upper-class peers. According to U.S. Census data[1], Black and Latinx families are more likely to make less than the median household income. In addition, families of lower income typically have less ability to take time off from work. This time is invaluable to families with young children for whom the crux of their learning stems from their home environments. With this dynamic in consideration, much attention needs to be paid to children from low-income backgrounds and their access to literary resources.

Differences in leisure time and parental education seem to be the largest factors in the literacy rates of low and middle income children. Higher levels of parent education are associated with greater parent interest in reading, greater child interest in reading, and greater parent-child reading interactions[2]. A study from 1997[3] found that 90% of middle-income parents reported daily book-reading activity, compared to 52% of low-income parents. Middle income families were also found to visit the library more frequently than lower-income families; library use is a strong predictor of motivation to read.

Number of books in the home and frequency of library visitation are not the only differences related to household income and literacy skills. Another 1997 study4 showed that middle-income parents encourage reading as a source of entertainment more than low-income parents who are more likely to approach literacy as a skill to be cultivated. The same study[4] theorized that middle-income children’s earlier access to more books in their home leads them to relate to books as entertainment more than low-income children who tend to have less books in their households. However, children coming from low-income households are able to overcome these disadvantages when they engage in reading and writing play at home[5]. Children who engaged in this play performed on equal level to their higher income peers in recognizing and naming letters, handling books, and writing.

Shared parent-child reading time offsets much of the adversity faced by children of low-income households. When parents read with their children, they show that they value reading and that reading is a pleasurable activity. Oftentimes, the interest children show in reading is not a natural extension of play, but rather is introduced by the parent and adopted by the child because of the joy they derive from sharing a book with a parent[6].

Children who show high interest in reading are more likely to look at books at least 2 or 3 times a week, use the library, and be read to daily. Children growing up in a literacy-rich environment, where a positive value is ascribed to literacy, will develop a positive attitude towards reading. These factors lead to a good reading ability[7]. Without parental support, books are only partially accessible to young children who are not yet conventional readers. Parents who themselves do not enjoy reading may be unable to support their children’s interest in reading, and parents with a low level of literacy are unable to make a book comprehensible to an emergent reader[8]. When adult figures, like teachers and parents, actively voice encouragement and support for children’s reading efforts, children are inspired to read more[9].

Studies show that the earlier literacy activities are incorporated into a child’s play the better. Children who are interested in reading as preschoolers are more academically successful in the intermediate years and beyond.

One variable that numerous studies on early childhood literacy agree on is that access to books is the most important facet in building lifelong readers. For children from low-income households, this can be an issue. This year’s Accio Books recipient site, Words Alive, addresses this issue with their book-giving program, and with the support of Accio Books, even more families can be reached. Of greater importance is Words Alive’s effort to address the issue of low readership in low-income communities, by doing more than just giving books to families in need. Words Alive also offers parental workshops to help families engage children in more frequent reading behaviors.

Four in 10 American children live in low-income families, In their homes, schools and communities, books and educational resources are scarce. They start school behind their more affluent peers and often never catch up. Via National Center for Children in Poverty

The Words Alive Family Literacy Program is a seven-week, 90 minute workshop that provides 10.5 hours of parent education on early literacy development for preschool age children. Each workshop includes information sessions, skill building exercises for parents, group story time, and guided activities for parents and children. These workshops are held in two different sessions, typically February — March and April — May, at elementary schools and child development centers that typically serve low-income, multi-ethnic communities in San Diego. This year, approximately 300 families across San Diego County graduated from the Family Literacy Program!

In previous years, families enrolled in the program took home 1,043 new books and clocked more than 1,175 hours of shared reading time. Program participants reported having a routine for sharing books with their children 85% more post-program than they had before they enrolled in the program[10]. These statistics show that the program is making an impact on key areas for literacy development.

This program also improves the dichotomy between low and middle-income children’s reading exposure. Families reported a 28% growth in children seeing adults reading and writing at home, a 31% growth in visiting the library with their children, and a 23% growth in the number of books in the home post-program participation. The program also helped families make great strides in helping children read books independently, 31% of families reported growth in this area; spent more time engaged in shared reading with their children 28% more than before; spent at least 29% more time reading words that appear in the community (on signs, etc); worked on creative activities like singing, dancing, drawing, and storytelling 32% more; found their children asking questions about stories 26% more; and answered questions about stories 31% more[11].

Tre (single father of three, Army veteran, and community college student) with his child at a Family Literacy Program graduation in 2016. His daughter is holding a piece of paper that says “Super Reader Award.” Of the Family Literacy Program Tre said: “I have learned so many different ways to get involved with my kid’s life through reading. This experience has changed my life and my kids enjoy reading with me so much.”

Parents also shared their thoughts about their growth as a parent-child reading unit, saying things like, “We now make sure to read every night!” and “Reading has become a daily routine. Before we would sit down and watch TV,” after completing the program. They also mentioned the change they saw in their children’s reading habits based on parental influence, “My participation has increased her confidence, when she sees me interacting she wants to as well.[12]” The Words Alive Family Literacy program also helped parents understand the importance of reading to their children at an early age, as one parent testifies, “Before I did not read to any of my children. When I began to attend the program, I began to realize how important it is for the children. Reading is an important part because it taught my child to be more curious and ask more questions when we read.” Some families were so impacted by the program that it changed the way that they approached books overall. “I started a little library (designated in a special drawer) with the books that we got from this program,” “We bought books instead of toys at the store!” and “Reading is not about reading the entire book and has a better quality to it [after participating in the program][13].”

While the work completed by Words Alive is very inspiring, not every community falls under the purview of a Family Literacy Program. One sustainable idea that you may consider would be starting a community library in your neighborhood (see the Little Free Library) or checking out the Dolly Parton literacy program for children from birth to age 5 that serves families in the USA, UK, CA, and AU and sharing this information with families in need.

A great aspect of both Words Alive and the Harry Potter Alliance is that they work hard to make sure that the literature given to these communities is representative of the backgrounds and experiences of the children served. So if you plan to donate books, you should consider doing this as well. Finally, consider donating (money or books) to the Harry Potter Alliance’s Accio Books campaign. Your contributions will help Words Alive and communities around the world get more books and other literacy boosting resources to those who need them most.

[1] U.S. Census Data https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2015/demo/p60-252.pdf

[2] Bracken, S. S., & Fischel, J. E. (2008). Family reading behavior and early literacy skills in preschool children from low-income backgrounds. Early Education and Development, 19(1), 45–67.

[3] Baker, L., Scher, D., & Mackler, K. (1997). Home and family influences on motivations for reading. Educational psychologist, 32(2), 69–82.

[4] Baker, Scher, & Mackler, (1997).

[5] Baker, Scher, & Mackler, (1997).

[6] Baker, Scher, & Mackler, (1997).

[7] Swalander, L., & Taube, K. (2007). Influences of family based prerequisites, reading attitude, and self-regulation on reading ability. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 32, 206–230.

[8] Bus, A. G., Van Ijzendoorn, M. H., & Pellegrini, A. D. (1995). Joint book reading makes for success in learning to read: A meta-analysis on intergenerational transmission of literacy. Review of educational research, 65(1), 1–21.

[9] Schunk, D. H., & Zimmerman, B. J. (2007). Influencing children’s self-efficacy and self-regulation of reading and writing through modeling. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 23(1), 7–25.

[10] Words Alive, 2016

[11] Words Alive, 2016

[12] Words Alive, 2016

[13] Words Alive, 2016

Porshéa Patterson is a Ravenclaw who can’t get enough out of reading, fandoms, intersectional feminism, and research — it’s also her day job. She is the Racial Justice Campaigns Researcher for the HPA; follow her @Porshea_obvi on Twitter.