The Fort Worth Public Library is starting off the new year by challenging children to read 1,000 books with their parents before they start kindergarten — with prizes to reward their progress along the way.
“In the first three years (of life), a child’s brain has reached 80% of its adult volume,” said Trevor Naughton, the youth services manager for the library. “So it is a really key time to develop those literacy skills and to spark that love of reading and lifelong learning.”
Every 100 books, children can stop into the library and pick up a prize from a selection of sunglasses, stickers, Slinkies and more.
But beyond the prizes, children are learning literacy skills at a pivotal time for education in Fort Worth, as young children, parents and educators grapple with months and in some cases years of disrupted or delayed learning.
Fort Worth ISD has ramped up efforts to increase literacy scores in recent years, with a new literacy framework rolling out over the course of the COVID pandemic.
Administrators told the board of trustees last year that they were hopeful about the outcomes, but beginning-of-year assessments saw students on track to repeat last year’s reading scores, where only 26% of third-grade students met or exceeded grade level.
Other methods, like a book vending machine, reading challenges and a recent initiative where students can read in order to earn a new playground have also been included in the district’s push to get more kids to read.
Advocates and experts point to early literacy exposure as a key step toward improving later academic success.
Early exposure key to literacy success in school
Cindy Jiban, the principal academic lead for NWEA, an education nonprofit that provides assessment tools to school districts including Fort Worth ISD, said that reading to children exposes them to vocabulary that they otherwise wouldn’t hear early on.
“With young kids, a lot of what you’re doing when you’re reading books aloud, is you’re giving them exposure to rich language,” Jiban said. “The language we use with little kids, especially orally, is kind of dialed down to make sure they’re understanding. We don’t use a lot of dependent clauses, semicolons in the way that we are speaking, and we don’t vary our vocabulary a lot.”
Studies have found that children who are read to every day for the first five years of their life are exposed to 1.4 million more words during storybook reading than children who are never read to.
That exposure eventually evolves into language comprehension and “decoding,” where children are able to understand that letters and written words correspond with words that are being read to them by their parents.
“When you’re working with young kids, a lot of language comprehension is being built, but by virtue of them seeing the page and hearing you work with sounds and words, they’re also getting this rich, sort of readiness for the decoding space,” Jiban said. “(For) kids who struggle to decode, that’s a huge source of kind of a gradual accumulation of shutting down at school.”
That is why administrators at Fort Worth ISD, including Executive Director of Multilingual Programs Cloris Rangel, are urging parents to start reading to their kids as well as telling them stories at a young age.
“We stress on our end that regardless of your language, even if English isn’t your first language … to read and have those literacy experiences in the native language of the family,” she said. “We want them to read and to hear stories about their family.”
Delayed exposure to words can set kids back for life
While the benefits of reading are clear, researchers have also found that the results of delaying exposure to literacy could exacerbate academic problems already persistent in under-served communities.
“When kids are entering with weaker language comprehension, that problem tends, if left alone, to compound itself, so that understanding fewer words tends to lead to less interest in a variety of topics and reading,” Jiban said. “The good news is that one of the most effective tools we have in education is early targeted literacy intervention. So when, through a process of really good screening, … we find kids who are falling short or at risk, we then bring some extra resources in a targeted way to the skills that kids are low on. It’s very effective.”
Reading at home before kids start school can also teach children that reading can be fun — another step toward improving academic outcomes, Rangel said.
“At home, the best thing parents can do is bring the joy,” she added. “Kids get better at reading by doing it more, so keep motivating them, keep having it as part of a fun thing that the family does and always encourage them.”
Charlie Luh, the president of the 1,000 Books Foundation which supports similar initiatives across the country, also said that reading with your children can build confidence, and provide a chance to bond.
“One of the purposes of the program is actually to create a parent-child bonding experience,” Luh said. “There’s no greater joy when you see a kid with the confidence that he or she could read. I mean, it gives the kids so much self-confidence that they’ll actually want to go to school and share. “
For parents in under-served areas, finding the time and resources to read to their children can also be a barrier. That is where support by community partners, including the library, become vital, Luh said.
Library support enables reading exposure for all young children
Rangel, the Fort Worth ISD administrator, said that the public library and school libraries both play an important role in providing that exposure.
“Not every family has a personal library at home, so it is definitely a key resource to have free access to as many books as you can down the street, as well as the school library,” Rangel said. “The more that (children) see parents checking out books, even for themselves, I think is a great way to model that reading is important at home for all of us.”
Fort Worth ISD also voted in December to provide parents with an e-book library to increase the number of books kids have access to.
“There is a product that is available on any device to all the emergent bilingual students,” Rangel said. “So they have access to ebooks from home as well … in English and Spanish.”
Equity of access can be the difference between success and failure later in young children’s academic careers, research has shown.
Stephen Krashen, a professor emeritus at the University of Southern California, told the Star-Telegram last year that access to books can even out the effects of poverty when looking at academic outcomes.
“Poverty is always a factor in every one of these studies going back to the 1930s,” Krashen said. “Poverty means, of course, poor diet, day-to-day getting through life, but it also means no books in the home. A good library can balance that access to books.”
That, researchers and educators say, makes programs like the one at the Fort Worth Library essential to bridging the gap.
“I think that programs like that are massively important for equity of access,” Jiban said. “We don’t see families left alone. When the community is providing and recognizing that we need to be the ones who create that equity of access, that’s hugely important.”