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Words Are Building Blocks

Updated: Apr 28, 2020

Children are entering school with different levels of exposure to words, generally linked to the income of their households. In families bringing in a small income, many parents are working long hours, potentially multiple jobs and striving to meet basic needs. Investing in books and time to sit down with their child to read could be a luxury some parents don’t have. While accessibility to books may be taken for granted, such as close access to public libraries, schools libraries, or the internet, low-income neighborhoods may be in book desert. According to NY Times journalist, David Bornstein, there is a startling statistic of a dozen books per child in middle-income neighborhoods vs. in low-income neighborhoods, the ratio may look like one book for every three hundred children.

In contrast, kids in families of a mid to higher income typically enter preschool or kindergarten, with the advantage of having been read to daily. This adds up to a 30 million word difference of words that have been heard and seen on paper by the time they enter school. Skills to read begin with exposure to language: being talked to and mirroring that language, associating words to pictures and determining a meaning, and hearing the different styles of authors as a way to learn a variation in communication styles.

Reading is now being recognized as a basic need. There is an absolute link to reading proficiency and academic success. Students that are “behind” on the first day of their educational career, based on what their circumstances in life bring them and the curriculum and resources the school is able to provide, is an example of the opportunity gap. With a 30 million word difference, it indicates they will have a harder time adopting language and curriculum in the school that is not present in their home life. Having the awareness that not all kids are provided the initial tools for reading before the first-grade is a starting block to improving this pattern.

And academic success is just one basic need for literacy skills. What about the joy of reading, of experiencing different worlds, lives, language variation, language and idea experimentation, and using your mind to paint the pictures and provide meanings for what authors are putting forth. Stephen Krashen, professor emeritus at the University of Southern California, reports that getting kids to read is not about instilling an enthusiasm for reading, that will come naturally with time spent with books. It’s about having books accessible, in close proximity, and a staple part their school libraries and of the home. 

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