Children in high-poverty areas read less, have harder time finding books

Posted July 31

Kindal Ross, left, and Mackenzie Dupuis, both fifth-graders at Borah Elementary School in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, cradle two of the three books they and more than 40 other students received Thursday, April 9, 2009, during CDA 4 Kids after-school program.  The Kootenai County chapter of First Book, an international nonprofit organization that works with local literacy programs to distribute books to children, offered grant money to put hundreds of books into the hands of area students. (Deseret Photo)

Children in poverty are learning less words as they grow up due to a lack of available books, and that, in turn, is contributing to a high literacy gap among different economic groups.

Earlier this week, The Atlantic reported that a typical child in a "white-collar family" will hear about 45 million words before he or she turns 4 years old. A child who grows up in poverty, however, will only hear 13 million. While this gap in oral vocabulary shows a vast disparity in how often wealthier parents speak to their children versus poor parents, it also points to a gap in how many words children consume via books.

Susan Neuman researches childhood and literacy education at New York University and served as the assistant education secretary under President George W. Bush, and said that reading is imperative to a child’s development.

"Book reading really provides the words the children need to learn," Neuman said. "Even a very low-level preschool book like a Dr. Seuss book has more sophisticated vocabulary than oral discourse. So it's really about the print gap and not the oral-word gap."

But books like those by Dr. Seuss are difficult to come by in low-income areas, according to Neuman's latest study.

Using Washington, D.C.'s Anacostia neighborhood as an example, where more than 60 percent of children live in poverty, Neuman and her research team found that no stores sold books for preschoolers and that there were only five books available for K-12 students, or one book for every 830 students.

In a nearby town with high-income families, Neuman discovered more than 2,000 books, or one for every two students. She found this to be normal for most middle- and high-class neighborhoods, which on average had 16 times as many books as low-income areas.

"Bookstores in the U.S. are becoming a rare bird, but (in places like this), there are no bookstores at all," Neuman said. “How do you become literate when there are no available resources?"

According to Fortune, Barnes & Noble has closed more than 100 of its locations in the past nine years — including its last Washington, D.C., bookstore this past October — which many attribute to online shops like Amazon. But ordering or reading books online requires high-speed internet, a luxury for families in high-poverty areas.

Libraries are generally available in lower-income areas but, as The Atlantic points out, poor families are often hesitant to use them because of possible late fees or hesitation to give personal information to a "government entity." Only 8 percent of poor families, in fact, say they've taken advantage of a local library, Neuman reported.

Neuman's research went on to state that "children from economically disadvantaged communities score 60 percent lower on kindergarten-readiness tests that assess kids’ familiarity with knowledge as basic as sounds, colors and numbers."

Advocates are trying to help by organizing book donations to needy children, and the government has tried to intervene with programs like Too Small to Fail and Talk With Me Baby.

Neuman and her team partnered with JetBlue recently to build a free vending machine filled with books in Anacostia. She estimates 27,000 books were given away in six weeks.

"(The project is) designed to say to people, 'strike down that notion that these people don’t care about their children'—they deeply care," Neuman told The Atlantic. "What they lack are the resources to enable their children to be successful."

Email:; Twitter: @sarapweber


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