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Bridging the Book Gap: Because Income Shouldn't Determine Access

Low-income neighborhoods only have one book for every 300 children. Let's fix this.

In our Transforming Schools Together series, teachers affiliated with the Center for Teaching Quality invite us to re-imagine the very concept of school, and suggest small actions we can take to improve existing schools.

Melinda lives in poverty. Her mom can't read or write. At the beginning of second grade, she owned one book and read at a kindergarten level.

Yet Melinda made extraordinary progress during the two years she was in my class. By the end of third grade, she had advanced to a fourth grade reading level. She laughed more, asked great questions, and had a calm confidence when she spoke.

Part of the reason for Melinda’s growth is elusive—that blend of strength, resilience, and grit that certain remarkable children seem to possess. But another reason for her success is simple—instead of one book at home, Melinda now has a home library of 40 books.

Problem: In the homes of many of the children I teach, the bookshelves are bare. A 2006 study by Susan Neuman found that the ratio of books to children in middle-income neighborhoods is 13 books to one child, while in low income neighborhoods the ratio is a single book to 300 children. Author Jonathan Kozol called it "the shame of the nation": the opportunity gap between children born poor and children born into affluence.

Solution: I started the 1,000 Books Project to find out what effect a home library would have on my students' love of reading. Each of the 25 children in my class received 40 books over the course of second and third grade, for a total of 1,000 new books in their homes. They chose the majority of these books themselves, based on their interests and their developing reading abilities.

Most of my students are English Learners, and they all live in poverty. Yet each child achieved an average of two years of reading growth in a single year. More importantly, the ideas, stories, and characters in the books sank into their lives in a way that has lasted.

After reading about adventures in Egypt and China, Salvador told me, "I changed my mind about being in the army when I grow up. I want to be an explorer instead." Rodrigo dragged into class one morning with a mournful expression on his face and said, "Something terrible happened, Mr. Minkel." He went on to tell me about a sled dog race in the book he had stayed up reading: "This one dog collapsed after the race. I'm worried she’s not going to make it." Melinda became the one literate person in her family. Her mom and little sister now ask her to turn off the television at night and read to them instead.

What I Challenge You To Do: Bridge the Book Gap

Find a teacher to be your partner. Most teachers I know would love to partner with an individual or group committed to providing kids with great books. If you don't know a teacher, consider getting in touch with a local principal to find out how you can help.

Raise funds. As the holidays approach, team up with a group of friends or family to help bridge the book gap for kids living in poverty.

Come up with a plan for purchasing the books. Scholastic Books sells high-quality children's literature for about $4 a book. With a little guidance from their teacher, students can browse Scholastic's website to fill out their own "wish lists" of books that match their reading level. When I did the 1,000 Books Project, the total cost for each student’s home library was about $50 each year: a small investment to move a struggling reader from frustration to confidence.

Make a personal connection. Your teacher partner may invite you to visit the class for reading time. The best part of my students' day is often the 10 minutes when a visiting grownup sits down one-on-one to read with them and talk about the book. Or you could be a mysterious pen pal who always seems to know just what the class is reading, and sends postcards of encouragement with each new box of books. You may find yourself rediscovering the excitement you felt about your own favorite books when you were a child.

Help bridge the book gap for children living in poverty. Their worlds will change as a result.

Book on table in library image via Shutterstock

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