One chilly Thursday morning in January, I dropped my daughter off at her preschool. After saying goodbye to her, I ventured into the Family Resource Room, nestled to the side of the school’s main lobby paneled with wall to ceiling glass. It was there that I saw three women strike up a conversation with each other. All three appeared to be in their mid-to-late thirties with short brown hair and average height. As they talked among themselves I overheard one of them saying that they were a little early for “SMART time,” meaning reading time; hence, that’s why they were waiting in the room.
SMART stands for Start Making A Reader Today, one of the largest and most successful nonprofits in Oregon. Every year, they bring together thousands of individuals into elementary school classrooms to read books to children from a variety of ethnicities and backgrounds. However, it should be noted that SMART tends to focus mainly on inner city schools, lower performing schools, and schools with a high concentration of minorities and children of color, including African Americans.
The three women continued talking amongst themselves about a variety of subjects, one of which I caught was the perils of obtaining childcare. One woman noted that someone she knew had to take their kid to work once a week because of a babysitter snafu…and the talk went on. As typical as their conversation seemed to be, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “It can’t possibly be that the only type of people who care about reading are white, middle class women.” Where is everyone else?!? I imagined that if any of them had children of their own, their kids must be at least 15 years old. Perhaps their kids have already left the nest, and they’re feeling lonely. Or perhaps they’re not that old. Maybe they’re just stay-at-home moms who have the means to go volunteer every week at an inner city elementary school filled with African American children, just to make themselves feel better about contributing to society.
Later that evening, I talked with my husband about this observation. Our conversation quickly molded into the subject of storytimes at the library, something I do on a regular basis. He asked me if this racial representation also applies to storytimes. The thought of who attends storytimes isn’t necessarily something that I think about often; it was only when he brought it up that I began to realize that yes—the people who typically bring their children to storytimes are white, middle class women! Most likely stay-at-home moms, sometimes fathers. Oftentimes, they look much older than me. But then again, I look like I could be my kids’ babysitter.
I’m no stranger to literacy. I’ve been reading to my daughter since she was about 14 months old, and now at the age of four (almost five), she is a fantastic reader. She is well beyond the reading level of her peers, so much that her teacher this year was beyond surprised because she is only one out of two children who can really read amongst her 15 classmates.
Of course, I’m not here to brag about my child’s reading abilities, because that would seem selfish. Research has shown that reading to your child at an earlier age sets the stage for their academic and professional development later down the road. It enforces certain skill sets such as critical thinking and analysis, as well as written communication. The sooner the better, they say, so they don’t fall behind. That is why I began when Lily was just a year old, and why I’ve also introduced books to my son, who at 17 months doesn’t appear to be too much into books yet—however, he is slowly starting to engage with them.
According to the Statistic Brain Research Institute, an organization that collects data for educational purposes, they noted in their July 2017 report that about 43% of adults read at Basic or Below Basic levels, as compared to 57% of people who can read at Proficient or Intermediate levels. Digging deeper into this statistic, you might be surprised to find out that Hispanics are part of the majority—41% of them read at Below Basic level, followed by African Americans at 24%. This is really troubling, because a large majority of minorities and people of color cannot read good enough to be able to do basic, everyday tasks such as signing a form, balance a checkbook, compare ticket prices, and use a TV guide to look for certain information, according to the National Center for Education Statistics report.
At Lily’s school, the evidence is there—roughly 34% of the student population is African American, followed by 30% Hispanic, the rest is variety of multi-racial, Caucasian, and Native Americans. On a global scale, approximately 757 million adults are illiterate. Girls account for the majority of this illiteracy rate, with two thirds of the world’s women unable to read. This is startling because there are many more girls than there are boys in the world, and girls play a pivotal role running the household as well as in the real world. Women can conquer the world by owning their own businesses, doing their own taxes, and managing their own employees.
I’m not saying that educating boys aren’t important—I’m simply saying that the gender educational gap has been long withstanding. We all know that many girls, particularly in the poorest parts of the world, such as the Middle East and Africa, have less advantages when it comes to obtaining an education. And part of obtaining an education means learning how to read. It all comes down to granting independence for girls, and unfortunately, many countries are not ready to do so.
Of course, the problem is not just a global problem. It’s also a United States problem. By the age of five, one third of children entering kindergarten lack the skills necessary to be successful in school, and this number increases dramatically by the time they’re in fourth grade. The disparity comes from a lack of early literacy. Language development is the most pivotal from birth to age three, when babies’ brains are the most malleable because they’re developing fast; hence, vocabulary development plays a role in reading achievement by third grade, according to SMART.
Reading was a big thing for me growing up—I had a father who was a voracious reader. Despite the fact that we lived in a poor country with limited resources, he read the newspaper every single morning, and he’d read books every chance he got. Thus, I can attribute my love of reading to him. Both of my parents believed in the value of an education, but my dad was key in developing me into a lover of books.
Luckily, the skills that I gained from reading at an earlier age helped me in my English studies after my family immigrated to America. Due to a miscommunication, I was enrolled in a regular classroom, not an ESL class, and it was there that I sat with a volunteer reader (none other than a blonde hair, blue-eyed white middle aged woman whose name I’ve long forgotten) who read books to me as a way to help me learn English (this was after they figured out my lack of English skills and it was too late to put me in an ESL class), and later on, encouraged me to read by myself.
It was that kind of support that gave me the confidence to further learn English on my own. During my free time at home, I watched TV shows with subtitles on, listened to American music on the radio, and read as many young adult novels as I could possibly get my hands on, always with a dictionary in tow. That method proved successful, for I became proficient in about a year and a half. It’s still my preferred method of language learning today—to immerse oneself in the culture and language with as little assistance as possible. I believe that an average person like me has the brain capacity to figure things out when I didn’t have too many resources, like an after-school tutor.
After the conversation I had with my husband, and the realization about the scarcity of non-white parents showing up at story times and children’s events, I began to question why. WHY are there hardly any people of color volunteering to read in schools? Despite what I do, why am I still a minority, both at the physical level and the cultural level? Are there any underlying reasons as to why this is happening?
I read that the first three years of a child’s life are the most critical for language development. Babies learn from the words that they hear and the touches that they receive from their caregivers. Research has shown there is a link between vocabulary development and socioeconomic backgrounds. By the time they’re three years old, babies from poor families will have heard 30 million words less than their more affluent peers. A Stanford University study found that amongst 18 to 24-month-old children, there is a language gap between the rich and the poor. The rich were defined as those with an average annual income of $69,000 per year, and the poor with an average income of $23,900 per year. The study found that children who came from higher socioeconomic backgrounds understood more words by the age of two than children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. The reason why? They speculated that children from lower income families had parents who talk less to their children, hence the 30 million word gap by age three.
“The greater the number of words children heard from their parents or caregivers before they were 3, the higher their IQ and the better they did in school. TV talk not only didn’t help, it was detrimental.” – Tina Rosenberg, The New York Times “The Power of Talking to Your Baby.”
Unfortunately, this word knowledge disadvantage continues well into fourth grade. Kids from lower income backgrounds tend to fall behind their more affluent peers, and the struggle becomes harder as they get older. More children continue to fall behind by the time they enter grade school, with minorities and people of color fall into this category the most.
Now, let’s think about this for a second. Is it really true that white, middle class parents talk more to their children or is it because they have the means to hire nannies, and require the nannies to speak and play with their children, thereby relinquishing the responsibilities of teaching their children about language? I may not be rich, but I am aware that “rich” parents are rich for a reason—they work long hours to be able to provide for their families, and unlike their lower class peers, they actually have the ability to hire help. Tutors, nannies, enrichment classes—you name it, they can afford it, whereas low income parents are struggling every day to pay for the bare necessities like food, shelter, and clothing.
It’s not to say that low income parents don’t have the time to talk to their children—it’s how they talk and what they say. Parents who are on welfare typically have multiple children, and oftentimes, their talk involves an authoritative or scolding tone, such as, “Stop hitting your brother!” or “Clean up your toys!”
I’m going to declare right here and now that I do not consider myself part of that trend. As with many parents, my husband and I exhibit a certain level of authority when it’s necessary, and other times, we talk a lot as a family. I’m not a big talker but my husband is, and this was passed down to my daughter. So, while I think there are some truth to the study and the statistics above, I also think that it is not representative of a lot of families in America, especially ones who are minorities. Just simply talk to your children more sounds great in theory, but one must take note of the privileges that rich kids have—being that their parents are more educated and have less children; therefore, the stakes are higher for these kids.
I wondered to myself –what would’ve happened if I didn’t have a parent who was so into reading? I would’ve become a statistic, a stereotype. Of course, the statistics mentioned above do not reflect wholly on the number of low income parents out there who are avid readers and writers. And my experience at my daughter’s school is in no way reflective of the reality of literacy, but there is some truth to it, I believe.
In a way, I am a statistic, but I’m trying not to become the obvious statistic—that because I don’t make that much money means that I don’t have the time or money to give the gift of reading to my children.
As an adult or parent, regardless of your socioeconomic background, I believe we can ALL play a role in supporting children’s literacy. We need to. Our future depends on it. For birthdays and holidays, instead of giving them the latest gadgets or toys, give the gift of books instead. And instead of going to the mall, a compendium of material things, head to the nearest library for story time—they’re free events that allow children to socialize with each other and hear stories. Finally, instead of simply tucking your child in bed at night, make time to read to them. They say that it only takes 20 minutes of reading each night to a child at least 3 times a week for it to make a difference in their life.
Every night, we ask my daughter to pick out books—usually 3 books, because that takes up 20 minutes of reading—from the stack of books that I choose based on her reading level at the library. It’s a ritual that we’ve done for years and will continue for many more. As a working mom nowadays, I don’t have as much time to take her to the library as I used to, but I make an effort to go at least once a week for story time and other children’s related events. She gets incredibly excited each time, and I believe it’s a culmination of the hundreds of times that I’ve taken her in the past.
This past Christmas, we gave my newest nephew a book—his first one. Even though he’s only three months old, I’m hoping that his parents will read to him, thereby instilling a sense that reading is important for learning and developing the mind.
Remember that kids don’t care where you get the books from. You can scout the library stacks, go to Barnes & Noble children’s section, browse through Amazon’s enormous selection, or get it at Goodwill—it doesn’t matter. It’s the fact that you are giving the gift of books that matters more. Lastly, when gifting books or reading to a child, it’s important to be as excited as possible and allow them to ask questions. You may not realize it, but kids do model their behavior after you (the adult), so if you’re not excited about books, then why should they be?
Reading sets the stage for future success. We can’t allow kids, especially ones from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to fall behind simply because we don’t talk to them enough or read to them enough. It’s our job as adults to propel them towards common core skills that are going to be useful for them to function in society.