We know that approximately 61 percent of low-income families do not have a single piece of reading material suitable for a child. In Georgia, a third of our children come to school unprepared to learn and 75 percent of students who are poor readers in the third grade will remain poor readers in high school. Further, Georgia scored 46th on SAT’s in 2006, one in four adults in Georgia operates at a low literacy level, and low literate workers cost Georgia businesses $7 billion a year.
Teaching children to read is often seen as the sole responsibility of our nation’s schools. For the most part, children’s success or failure in reading is seen as a function of the quality of their elementary education. Most kindergarten teachers would strongly disagree with these assumptions. Their experience reveals marked differences among children in their ability to learn, their familiarity with books and language, and their confidence level. In short, long before a child has experienced formalized education, there are already children far ahead of the curve and even more lagging far behind. In a 1991 (Boyer) study, kindergarten teachers reported that 35% of the children arrive at school unprepared to learn. Playing “catch up” is a very difficult proposition both for the child and the teacher.
Leading economists say that money put toward early-childhood programs offers the greatest returns and may be the best form of economic development out there. “Early-childhood interventions are the most cost-effective way to develop human capital” according to Nobel Prize winning economist, James Heckman. And Early Childhood Development: Economic Development with a High Public Return by Art Rolnick & Rob Grunewald states “Any proposed economic development list should have early childhood development at the top.”
The key is to start at birth. To immerse a child in literacy environment can be a stronger predictor of literacy and academic achievement than family income. The more words a child hears, the larger the child’s vocabulary, and the larger the child’s vocabulary, the more likely the child will be a proficient reader.
However, in order to read with a child, books must be in the home. In a 1991 study by Needlman, parents given books by their doctor were four times more likely to read and share books with their children. This rate increased to eight times more likely with lower income parents.
It is also instructive to examine the consequences of failing to build an adequate foundation for reading. The most stunning revelation is just how difficult it is to become a proficient reader if a child is trapped by initial difficulty. In a 1988 study, Juel found “…that 88% of children who have difficulty reading at the end of first grade display similar difficulties at the end of fourth grade.” Researchers at Yale discovered a similar trend. In their 1997 study, “…75% of students who are poor readers in the third grade will remain poor readers in high school.”
The Ferst Foundation for Childhood Literacy cannot address all the issues of early literacy; however, we can eliminate one of the reasons why parents do not read to their child – the availability of quality books in the home. Books delivered not just once, but 60 times in the child’s critical years of development.
The Rotary Club of Jasper sponsored the startup of the Ferst Foundation in Pickens County. The members of the club serve on the board and contribute, through their dues, to the Ferst Foundation.