Shane Garver is Associate Vice President of Rural Education Programs at Save the Children. Here, he explores how communities can build a culture of reading for children, particularly in rural areas with limited access to books.
Summer is a critical time for kids to build on—not lose—what they’ve learned during the school year, and even get a jump-start on the coming year. To continue learning and reading over the summer months, children need the opportunity to select their own books that foster their own interests and imagination. This is especially important for our country’s most vulnerable children, who are living in book deserts where they have little to no access to books.
More than 60% of low-income families do not have any children’s books in their home (Binkley and Williams, 1996). Yet it’s essential for kids to have a sense of book ownership—given that children who own books enjoy reading more and are more likely to read for at least 30 minutes each day. They are also 20% more likely to read above their expected reading level (Clark and Poulton, 2011); we know that reading achievement is so strongly linked to a child’s success in school in life.
Save the Children is often the only child-focused nonprofit in the more than 200 rural communities in the United States where we’re providing much-needed early learning support to kids and helping families build home libraries. These are communities struggling with poverty and unemployment compounded by the pandemic. Families may need to travel a few towns over or farther to go to a public library, which can prove difficult if they don’t have reliable transportation. And it’s uncommon for these communities to even have a bookstore, or for families to have disposable income beyond what’s needed to make ends meet.
It really takes a community to build a culture of reading for its children, and with the collaboration of local partners, schools, and community members, Save the Children is able to see a cultural shift in many of the rural communities where we work. This shift is becoming a reality with the help of partners such as Scholastic, which enable Save the Children to get hundreds of thousands of books in the hands of kids who need them most.
There are many ways a community can enable children to have the chance to choose that next book this summer—such as setting up community bookshelves and reading spaces in well-frequented businesses, like restaurants and doctors’ offices. And, by partnering with local school districts where we work, we are also able to deliver books and learning materials by bus to children and families at their homes. In eastern Kentucky, for example, Save the Children acquired a bus through a local partnership and sends it to places where no preschool programs are offered, providing books and early learning materials to young children throughout the area.
To help cultivate reading from day one, Save the Children has partnered with OB-GYNs to give new and soon-to-be parents early learning kits that include books and tips, so they can read to their child and support learning and healthy development from infancy. We’ve also supported reading clubs for older developing readers, like the ones started by some of our local faith-based partners in South Carolina last summer for children across their congregations. We provided books for the participating children and they implemented the club with the support of their teachers and youth leaders.
At the heart of all literacy-building efforts like these are community members, educators, and organizations showing children that reading is important and opens up so many possibilities. When children see that their parents, teachers, neighbors, and friends care about reading, they’re more motivated to engage with books. The more communities can come together around reading this summer, the more chances children will have to spark a love of reading. Creating that spark, especially in a town where families historically don’t have access to books, can change a child’s future.
Binkley, Marilyn and Trevor Williams. 1996. “Reading Literacy in the United States: Findings from the IEA Reading Literacy Study.” NCES. https://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=96258.
Clark, Christina and Lizzie Poulton. 2011. “Book ownership and its relation to reading enjoyment, attitudes, behaviour and attainment.” National Literacy Trust. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED521658.pdf.