Without books at home, few read well

Children raised in low-income families have few age-appropriate books in their homes, according to First Book, which gives books to disadvantaged children to encourage reading.  The infographic is based on research by Susan Neuman, co-author of Giving Our Children a Fighting Chance.

[INFOGRAPHIC] The Haves and the Have-Nots

Education reform starts with reading, writes Michael Mazenko in the Denver Post. He supports Common Core standards’ recommendation that 70 percent of all high school reading be non-fiction. Students can analyze literature in English class and think critically about informational text in social studies, science, math and arts classes, he writes. That will help the 44 percent of high school students who can’t truly comprehend what they read, according to NAEP.

About Joanne


  1. What am I missing? Does someone at the local library check whether kids come from a low-income community and deny them entry on that basis?

    Point is, the libraries are funded by public monies and therefore accessible to all. The reason why these kids lack books at home has nothing to do with income and everything to do with the home culture. If Mom and/or Dad would take the time to schlep their kids to the library, they could have all the age-appropriate reading materials they could possibly want. Not only that, but the librarians would be all too glad to help them find these materials, and make recommendations. For example, there is a significant Spanish-speaking population in my town, yet a great deal of them have figured out how to make use of the library. All it takes is willingness to get your butt down there and sign up for a free library card.

    Furthermore, you can great a great (if not informal, but given what’s going on in colleges these days, you’re probably going to learn more anyhow) education from your local library, thanks to interlibrary loans.

    When it comes to accessibility to books, there are no “haves” and “have nots” – there are only “will” and “will nots.”

    • What you’re missing is that, on the whole, parents who can’t read raise kids who can’t read and parents who don’t go to the library raise kids who don’t go to the library.

      • Stacy in NJ says:

        Can’t read or won’t read?

        Many of them aren’t illiterate; they choose not to spend their time reading themselves or to their children.

        I came from a home with one book, an old Encyclopedia Britannica. I remember the first time someone read to me – first grade (James and the Giant Peach). My mother was a high school graduate who was absolutely literate. She simply had other priorities.

        You condescend to people when you assume their illiteracy.

        • You condescend to people when you say they’re lazy.
          And only one of us speaks from experience (hint: not you).

          • Stacy in NJ says:

            No one said anyone was lazy. You have reading comprehension issues. Try again.

  2. Richard Aubrey says:

    Lee. I’m not sure, but I don’t think you’re supposed to say that.
    See Dolly Parton’s non-profit Imagination Library which has shipped over 40 million age-appropriate books. I don’t think they’re air-dropped over needy neighborhoods. Somebody has to write in or ask. It’s always something, you know?

  3. palisadesk says:

    Lee’s point is true in some cases, but his blanket assertion that all low-income families can access public libraries if they choose is simply NOT true.

    I’ve worked in a rural community that had no library, and there was no mail service from the nearest city library system. Those families had NO access to books.

    Since then I’ve been in several very low-SES urban communities. The libraries in the area are wonderful, and provide superlative programs for children — those who can access them. Many of my students cannot get to the library during the limited library hours — they have no adult available to take them, or the adult is disabled or bedridden. Their parents all work multiple low-wage jobs. The library is not easily accessible by public transit, and is too far away to walk to. None of these families have automobiles, and taxis are expensive.

    This is where schools can come in, however. We have an arrangement with the local library system where we can take classes of children on a field trip to the library every two or three weeks (providing the library is not more than a mile away). We get our eighth graders and high school students involved in becoming library aides and helping young children go to the library on Saturdays (a group from the same apartment building can walk together with the older student).

    However, the obvious solution is to have an excellent school library. I’ve seen what a tremendous difference that makes, and where it truly becomes the hub of the school. Children come early and stay late to read or browse in the library; they share their favorite books, compete for prizes (the prizes are books) based on what they read, and so on. It needs a “reading culture’ in the school and a knowledgeable librarian who can match kids to books that will interest them. It’s difficult to get kids fired up about reading when there are NO books, either in the home or the school. I taught in one where the most recent book was from the 1950’s, and pretty beat-up. I haunted yard sales and Goodwill stores all year for second-hand books for my students.

    Our low-SES students don’t have Game Boys and iphones, much less tablets and e-readers, so they respond with alacrity to the opportunity to read books that excite them. Our library is of medium size, but every volume is chosen with care, and we have a very high circulation rate — kids are USING the library.

    It would certainly be great if children could have more books at home too, but I think good SCHOOL libraries is the place to start.

    • Richard Aubrey says:

      Your comments are somewhat on point. But note the one-per-300 figure. There’s more to that than not having a B&N on the corner. Our schools had bookmobiles which would periodically supplement the school’s permanent library with shelves of books while carrying books ordered to and from various schools.
      People in rural areas famously shop at the despised Walmart. A couple of bucks will buy a kid’s book, and two or three of those and…you’re better than one in three hundred. My wife and I drive through a number of small and very small towns on our travels. You will usually see a library sign on what passes for a main street. And no mattter how far out in the boontoolies you live, somebody has to come into town for, I dunno, more ammo or something. Couple of times a year to sell muskrat pelts, whatever.
      In big cities, people on welfare aren’t working multiple low-wage jobs and if they are, they might just be having to get there somehow, which might put them a block or two from the library. Not like you have to visit twice a week, either. Sure, lots of people have issues with access, but the one in three hundred is more than a matter of access.
      One in, say, five, might be a matter of access. I’ll give you one in twenty. One in three hundred? Nope.
      An example of culture:
      My church is sponsoring a mission trip to an Indian reservation. The job is to, happens every couple of years, build wheelchair ramps, bunks for the kids, that sort of thing. I asked one of the guys why not save the money shipping a bunch of unhandy white kids out west and instead run a line of credit at the nearest Home Depot.
      He looked embarrassed. Thing is, some people will and some people won’t. Anything.
      My niece took a church youth group to a rez. What did they do? Took trash out of people’s yards. Where did the trash come from and why didn’t the locals do it themselves? She looked embarrassed.
      I had a church youth group cleaning up a city park. Three inches of broken glass on the tennis court. The houses that surrounded it were built with the old front-door, side-door style. The side door was closer to the curb than to the back yard boundary with the park. But the trash was in the park.
      Some people do things one way and others another.

  4. First of all, did the 13 per upper middle class child seem low to anyone else? I’d guess there are some houses where the books are everywhere –used books, new books, library books…. and some houses that are bookless, even among the middle class. So it’s probably not the books themselves driving reading….

    Also, the availability of rural libraries is very regional. In the Midwest, towns seem to hold onto their public libraries like treasure. When we visit relatives in the deep south, the libraries are smaller. Even big southern libraries (like Tuscaloosa) seem to suffer from a lack of books and impose draconian checkout limits…..

    • cranberry says:

      No, it does not seem low to me.

    • My husband grew up in the small-town south and had to drive to the nearest city to get to a library, but where I live in TN every incorporated area in the county seems to have it’s own library branch. There are 3 within 8 miles of my house. Although they are all small, they loan between branches so you have access to everything. I lived in Albuquerque for years, and they also had small branches scattered throughout the city. In a stroke of brilliance, some were situated on large areas of city property, so that a park, pool, and/or senior center were all in one place. I’m sure we weren’t the only ones who took advantage of one-stop shopping.

      • Miller Smith says:

        Books are so plentiful and cheap…or even free, that one must look to the level of motivation in the homes of the poor rather than book availability.

        If poor parents don’t have books in the home then it is the parents who are not the good or motivated readers.

        Books in the home are indicators of ability and motivation not the causes of ability and motivation.

  5. I was unaware the the “bookmobile” was defunct ~

    Perhaps there are some extreme situations where “if there’s a will, there’s a way” does not somehow apply. But I have a hard time excusing the patronizing, victim mentality that seems to permeate these types of discussions. Unless, of course, we really are that far gone as a nation, when life’s adversities are deemed insurmountable and blamed on someone else, so we therefore give up.

    • Again, ‘bookmobile’ depends on the library system. Here in the Midwest, they’re alive and well. In fact, in our current county the bookmobile is an amazingly popular and efficient way to get library materials to small towns and farming communities far from the county seat. Growing up in the Maryland suburbs, however, I thought the bookmobile was a little bit of history, not something that still happened.

      As a kid in the suburbs, if I hadn’t had the sort of parents who were willing to take me on regular library excursions, there would have been no way for me to get there.

  6. BadaBing says:

    Most low-income families don’t/won’t read. Why do you think they’re low-income? Does some white guy sneak into their house at night and steal any books he might find? That’s a good narrative for MSM, but the spokesholes in MSM don’t live in the real world. Most of my low-income hispanic students hate reading, and there are no books in their homes. If the district educrats would approve high-interest books at their level, we could turn things around, but Great Expectations isn’t going to do it. I got lambasted by admin for buying a set of Hatchet and having the class read it. Yes, they did read it. And liked it. In several classes I’ve recently given some nonreaders the NLT Bible to read, starting in 1 Samuel. Now they ask me for it whenever we have SSR. It’s hard to overcome the home cultural bias, but it can be done with many low SES kids.

  7. Crimson Wife says:

    Our local friends-of-library shop sells good condition used books for $0.50 per paperback and $1.00 per hardcover or board book. A couple times per year they have a bag sale where it’s $5.00 for all the books that can fit into a grocery bag.

    90% of households in the U.S. pay for either cable or satellite TV. That is one easy way to find money in a tight budget to buy books for one’s children…

    • Richard Aubrey says:

      Every so often, I go to the library’s used book sale. Some have permanent facilities, others a couple of days a quarter. Speaking of quarters, I can get a paperback for two or four bits. Costs about $5 to fill a box to send to somebody deployed. Just no porn, politics or religion.
      The people who are really concerned about this could do the same thing except either get an address of one of these benighted neighborhoods, or go stand on a corner and hand them out. I pay postage to ship downrange. Handing them out in one of these oases of illiteracy shouldn’t cost a dime. Whatever that is.

      • I love the whole correlation/causation thing.

        Its obviously the lack of books, and not:
        Education of parents
        Parents view towards education
        Parents modeling of reading themselves
        Cultural view of literacy and academics
        that are causing both the learning problems and the lack of books in the household. If we just give all the families books, and make sure they take algebra in 8th grade, they’ll all go to harvard.

        • I love how the second Joanne gets off the “KIPP-type schools are so great that it doesn’t matter what the child’s parents, home or neighborhood are like,” to “The magic solution is to put more books in kids’ homes” without skipping a beat.

          I guess the consistency is her willingness to embrace magic solutions.

          • Stacy in NJ says:

            Huh? Where has Joanne indicated that she believes placing books in low-income homes will solve the problem? She discuss CCS at the end of the post.

          • cranberry says:

            When Joanne links to another person or group’s post, I don’t assume she’s endorsing their viewpoint.

          • I post on all sorts of things that I think could be discussion starters.

            I don’t see a conflict between looking for school models that improve the achievement of disadvantaged kids and looking for ways to encourage disadvantaged kids to read at home. Some book giveaway programs include videos of someone reading the book to a child to show how it’s done. If a mother isn’t literate enough to read a child’s book, she can hold her child in her lap and point to the pictures in the book while watching the video. No, it’s not the royal road to Harvard, but it’s worth trying.

          • Discussion starters… no offense, but there is a consistent pattern – a theme – behind your “discussion starters”. If your best defense for that pattern is, “I’m just trying to start a discussion” and a shrug, that’s not actually a defense at all.

        • cranberry says:

          Paul, don’t all the factors you cite influence the parents? If you leave school with the equivalent of a late elementary-school education, you may not associate schools and reading with success.

          The advice in many well-meaning parenting pundit columns to “model reading” to children overlooks the fact that it’s hard to mode reading when one cannot read. National literacy surveys attest that many people can read, but are not fluent readers.

  8. George Larson says:

    According to this the rise of e-readers will make us all bookless and our children illiterate

    • e-readers would solve the ‘no transportation’ issue. The kids could get on the internet at school and load them up with books from the public library without ever leaving their neighborhoods.

      • Richard Aubrey says:

        We got a Kindle Fire. The number of free books you can download–mostly chicklit but still some good–is huge.
        Now, if we substitute a Kindle for an Obamaphone, everybody will be literate.
        Speaking of numbers: Did the study mean kids’ books or books in general? We have two kids and had maybe a hundred kids’ books pass through the house, giving them to other couples when our kids got beyond the appropriate age. Maybe a couple of hundred adult books lying around. Most people we know/knew (restricted sample) had a large number of books on hand and if they don’t need to be kids’ books to count, I’d be surprised if it were as low as, maybe, thirty per kid.

        • They said ‘age appropriate’ kids books. So, for my third grader, her Little house and Roald Dahl and American Girls books would count, Good Night Moon and the Grinch Who Stole Christmas would not…..

          So, these ‘give kids book for the first year of life’ programs wouldn’t affect the statistics, because the parents don’t keep adding books on their own and by the time the child is in second grade or so, she’d be bookless.