Reading for Life: The Poverty/Illiteracy Connection

by Rhonda H. Lauer on October 20, 2010

Reading for Life: The Poverty/Illiteracy Connection

As part of the exciting series Reading for Life, Foundations’ President and CEO Rhonda H. Lauer shares her expertise and insights about grade level reading. Join Ms. Lauer as she offers key viewpoints and commentary based on her extensive experience working in Philadelphia–and across the country–to give our children and young people the educational opportunities they deserve. 

According to recent US Census Bureau reports, more than 20% of children under 18 years of age live in poverty, the highest child-poverty rate in 15 years. That’s 15.5 million children.

Unfortunately, poverty and illiteracy are closely connected. Nationally, 1st graders from low-income families have 50% smaller vocabularies than their peers from higher income families. Before they even enter school, children living in poverty face a host of challenges that their wealthier peers do not: food and housing insecurity, poor health care and unsafe environments, limited exposure to books and language. Any one of these obstacles can affect their school performance, cognitive development, and ability to learn; some children face all of them, all at once.

How can we help? Quality in-school instruction is one essential element, which is evident at Robert Fulton Elementary, a Foundations-managed school visited this month by President Obama. But that’s not all. As I noted in my commentary to Education Week in the May 21st online edition, reading is more than an academic issue. To read at grade level, children also need healthy, well-nourished minds and bodies, regular check-ups, and caring adults who support them as they move through the grades. For underserved populations, early intervention—in the toddler years—is also critical.

Perhaps the nation’s students need a longer school year too, as President Obama noted in a recent interview on the Today show. And books. Over 60% of low-income families have no children’s books in the home. Just like their wealthier peers, poor children need books that they like, ones they choose themselves, at their level and on topics that interest them.

There’s no magic to teaching reading, but it is magical once a child learns to read. Reading opens them up to new worlds and experiences, cultures and countries, and builds their self-esteem.  My hope is that by working together, by pooling our resources and expertise, and by addressing both academic and non-academic needs, we can give every child in this country—no matter where they live, no matter what their family’s income level—the opportunity to experience the magic of reading.

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