by James A. Bacon
Dr. Carolyn Boone is a pediatrician who serves a largely African-American patient base in Northside Richmond. In addition to providing check-ups and vaccinations, she participates in the Virginia “Reach Out and Read” program, the goal of which is to teach the joy of reading to young children — and maybe to their parents as well.
Participating doctors dispense books to children and advise parents on the importance of reading out loud. Even if babies just put the book in their mouth, that’s OK, says Boone in a Reach Out and Read video. Pretty soon, they notice the faces in the book. And then they want to be read to.
“You see the children come in. They run to the bookcase, and they want a book. And they want you to read the book, and they’re pulling their mothers to read a book,” says Boone. “In my office, I don’t hear the screaming anymore. It’s quiet.” Instead of yelling at the child to sit down, “momma may be sitting down with them and reading a book.”
Lower-income Virginians tend not to place a high value upon reading (although there are always exceptions). In many cases the parents may be barely literate themselves, and they rarely have the money, even if so inclined, to buy books for their children. The middle-class ritual of reading to children at bed-time is a foreign concept. Little wonder, then, that so many poor children are ill-prepared when they enter kindergarten.
A study just published by the National Bureau of Economic Research confirms what a mountain of previous studies have already concluded. Head Start pre-school enrichment programs can help poor children make dramatic cognitive gains, but the gains fade away in elementary school. Head Start can’t make up for an entire childhood raised in a cognitively poor environment. It can’t make up for parents who either don’t care, don’t know how, or don’t have the means to encourage their children to read.
There is nothing intrinsic to being poor that discourages reading. Raised in a log cabin, Abraham Lincoln famously read by firelight. Anyone, no matter how destitute, can check out books from the public library or school library. Reach Out and Read tries to change the culture of poverty not just by handing out books to children who can’t read them yet but by enlisting parents, usually mothers, to participate. For a young child, half the pleasure of reading is snuggling into a parent’s lap or cozying up in bed with mom or dad at night. The bonding experience reinforces the positive associations with reading.
Reach Out and Read, which distributes more than 215,000 books annually to more than 121,000 children across Virginia, claims that participating children enter kindergarten with better vocabularies, stronger language skills and a six-month developmental advantage over their peers.
School teachers can help teach a love of reading but they can’t do it by themselves. Reading has to take place at home. Parents have to get involved. If we, as a society, want poor children to acquire the reading skills needed to participate in a 21-century knowledge economy, we can’t expect the schools to do it all. We have to reach the parents, too. We have to change the culture of reading, which means changing the culture of poverty.