Literacy is Not A Mystery

By Pam Leo, Family Literacy Activist

“The most powerful early literacy skill young children can acquire is loving books.”  (-Pam Leo)

Three years ago this month, life as we knew it, changed forever and young children's literacy took its hardest hit in 20 years. The children whose literacy has been most jeopardized by the pandemic are the children living in poverty who own few or no books to look at or for their caregivers to read to them. The children whose literacy is least at risk are the children living in homes with abundant books to look at and for caregivers to read to them.

Much of the illiteracy in our country is caused by poverty. When parents can’t afford enough food, they can’t afford children's books. Without children's books in the home from the very beginning, young children cannot learn about books and parents cannot read to them enough to build the solid language foundation they need to learn to read easily and joyfully. The existing inequities for children living in poverty increased dramatically when the schools and libraries closed because of Covid.

The causes of illiteracy are many, but literacy is not a mystery. We know what causes it. The majority of children who learn to read easily and joyfully come to school from homes where they have lots of books and people who read aloud to them daily. End of story. We know just what we need to do to foster literacy. When we fill children's homes with free books, even if parents struggle to read often to their children, just the presence of the books in the home will boost the children’s literacy foundation.

 Over 25 years ago Dolly Parton started a program to support parents in raising children who will learn to read. What is her magic? She gives free books to families with children from birth through age five. Birth through age five is the window we have to foster that early literacy skill they need most to learn to read easily and joyfully. “The most powerful early literacy skill young children can acquire is loving books.” The way children fall in love with books is by owning books and having someone they love read to them every day starting from birth.
We don’t need to figure out what to do. We know what works. We need to figure out how to get as many books as possible into the homes of as many children as possible. As a community, we must do everything in our power to foster parents’ ability to provide a literacy-rich environment for the community’s children. Learning to read is so essential to children’s future health and well-being that in order to ensure that they do have the opportunity to fall in love with books, Maine’s Raising Readers program has given out over 3 million free books at well-child visits in the last 20 years.

It is timely indeed that Maine is now cosponsoring Dolly’s Imagination Library for the whole state. This means every child from birth through age five will be eligible to receive a free book in the mail every month with no income eligibility required. This gift from Dolly and the State of Maine will guarantee that every child, whose parents enroll them, will have age-appropriate, new books in their home. Receiving books from Raising  Readers and Imagination Library will support the birth through five age children in having a much stronger foundation for learning to read when they get to school.

However, the PreK, kindergarteners, and first graders now in school, have experienced Covid-caused learning losses and they need extra help to still become strong readers. Book Fairy Pantry Project is dedicating special efforts to getting as many free books as possible into the homes of children who are struggling with the double whammy of lacking books in the home and Covid caused learning losses. The more books they have at home, the more likely they will hear more stories, and still experience the reading benefits of falling in love with books.

We can’t change the things that have or have not already happened to our youngest students during these Covid years. However, we can change their future when we answer the call to do our part, both by donating outgrown books and by becoming a volunteer reading partner at our local elementary schools. It can’t be all on the parents and teachers to do this. They are exhausted. It takes a whole community to raise readers.

Pam Leo, is a family literacy activist, the author of Connection Parenting, and a new poem, Please Read To Me. Her enduring love of children's books, her passion for literacy, and her commitment to empowering parents, are combined in her new role as the founder of the Book Fairy Pantry Project, whose mission is "No Child With No Books," because "Books change children's lives... For good."