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Early Childhood Education

America’s Literacy Crisis: An Overlooked Epidemic

Photo: Courtesy of Alfons Morales

In this season of giving and goodwill, pictures of warm fires and families gathered are everywhere. For many, they evoke our memories of reading with loved ones.

But these images are not the reality for millions of children across the United States. For 16 million children living in poverty, only one in three has a book in the home. 

A dire reality

Studies show that socio-economic status has twice the influence on reading achievement as does ethnicity or gender. We know that giving children access to good books, to choose and to own, has a positive impact on how much children read and their attitudes toward reading as well as their writing and speaking abilities.

Why don’t families just go to their local library? For many, the nearest library can be an hour away. In rural areas, typically with no public transportation and the cost of gas, a family trip to the library is expensive.

Ironically, as we learn more about how to teach children about science, technology, engineering, art, math, health, social studies—concepts and vocabulary easily introduced through well-illustrated, well-written books—funds have been slashed to the point that many school libraries have closed or have not gotten new books in a decade or more.

The result? A literacy crisis, especially significant in light of our country’s need to compete globally.

This crisis is made more critical because so many do not see it as such. It’s cyclical, beginning before children enter school and continuing through graduation, when children in poverty read at levels four years behind their wealthier peers—if they are not among the 8,000 students who drop out every day. These children become parents, who statistically never catch up.

The future is in our hands

Knowing that the future of our country is inextricably linked to our skills in literacy, you can make a difference immediately: read and support reading.

Support libraries, and make use of good books that tell stories and teach content. It’s never too early to tell stories, sing songs, and narrate what you see; as simple as it is, talking about the world helps imprint the brain—it’s the way little ones figure out how language works. We know that children in poverty lose reading ability over the summer. Support reading—access to books and choice for children—any time children are out of school.

The world of reading research gives us new answers to old questions every day. We have known for as long as we have had written language that literacy is the vehicle for other learning. Let’s address this silent crisis now.

When children have access to books, we empower them to develop a lifelong love for learning, which strengthens us all.

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