Addressing the literacy gap in the Black community

”In the end, there is no program or policy that can substitute for a mother or father who will attend those parent/teacher conferences, or help with homework after dinner, or turn off the TV, put away the video games, and read to their child.”

— President Barack Obama, address to Joint Session of Congress, February 24, 2009

I remember vividly when I accidentally sent my mother an email meant for my girlfriends only. We had had a chain of emails going where we were lamenting some of the challenges we faced as African American women that stemmed from our childhoods.

Instead of “going off” on me, my mother graciously responded, “Sandy, I’m sorry if you felt that some things were lacking. You didn’t come with an instruction manual, you know.” Mom, of course, was right.

I believe my parents did the very best they could. Likewise, I believe that we as parents today are doing the best we can. Parents can only do what we know at the time given our culture, upbringing, education and circumstances.

The only difference between then and now is that today we do have the makings of an instruction manual for what it takes to raise children born to succeed, backed by decades of in-depth longitudinal research and proven outcomes.

Something we know today that we didn’t know with such certitude back then is that the infamous achievement gap across racial and economic lines doesn’t start at kindergarten — it starts in the womb. We know that a baby’s development in the womb, which includes their brain functioning, can be severely impacted by the mother’s health, well-being, environment and socio-economic status.

Babies experience and are impacted by joy and stress in utero! That’s why pregnant mothers today are encouraged to go to the doctor for prenatal checkups. They are also strongly dissuaded from drinking alcohol or smoking. Juxtapose that with my mother’s generation when women routinely did both with full societal acceptance.

After birth, research shows that oral vocabulary plays a critical role in determining a child’s academic and economic success. In fact, the size of a first-grader’s oral vocabulary is a reliable predictor of that student’s eleventh-grade reading comprehension (Cunningham and Stanovich, 1998). The lack of vocabulary development is a major contributor to the achievement gap, and it starts early with the literacy gap.

In the book Meaningful Differences, researchers Hart and Risley, after many years of study with the same 42 families, determined that children from middle- to upper-income families heard more words and had much bigger vocabularies than children from low-income families. Extrapolating verbal interaction over the course of a year, a child in a professional family would hear 11 million words while a child in a family on welfare would hear just three million.

Today, in line with these findings, we are seeing the following literacy gap:
On average, three-year-olds from middle- and upper-class households know as many as 1,200 words; by 3rd grade they know about 12,000 (National Center for Children in Poverty — NCCP).

In contrast, on average, three-year-olds from lower income families know as few as 600 words and only around 4,000 by the 3rd grade (representing only one-third of the vocabulary of middle- and upper-income kids).

At age four, children who live below the poverty line are 18 months below what is normal for their age group; by age 10 that gap is still present. For children living in the poorest families, the gap is even larger (NCCP).

By 2nd grade, kids from low-income households are close to 60 percent behind the average in reading ability (Snow, Burns and Griffin, 1998).

So how do we in the Black community address this literacy gap? First, even if you were not read to as a child, understand the power of words to change your child’s future and the importance of reading to him/her.

Start early (in the womb), and don’t stop — read, read, read, and then read some more with your child. Volunteer to read with children in your community that need it most, and encourage parents who may be struggling with their own reading to take literacy courses.

Also, make sure folks have library cards, and keep plenty of children’s books around. Studies have shown that 61 percent of low-income families have no children’s books in their homes (NCCP). And finally, get your child enrolled in a highly rated early childhood development program that focuses on literacy. (There are a plethora of great centers on the Northside that are partners in the Northside Achievement Zone).

As parents in the Black community, we are not victims. We already have all that we need to eradicate the literacy and the achievement gaps for our children. But we must do our part while demanding great early childhood services and a world-class K-12 educational system.

Sondra Samuels welcomes reader responses to

One Comment on “Addressing the literacy gap in the Black community”

  1. I teach an Adult Basic Education class, primarily African Americans. The most difficult part of teaching the class is trying to intrude on an attitude of comfort with ignorance. My students range in age from early forties to late fifties. One would think, however, that I am dealing with a bunch of teenagers. The class is a reading and writing class, and is taught in the public library. Before class, the students sit around waiting with earphones on, cell phones, or doing anything but reading. I have commented on this several times, and find it difficult to believe people who claim to want to read and write never read and write.

    They are able to read and write on a minimally functional level, but have a problem advancing beyond where they are. I have drilled in their heads, constantly, the need to practice,practice, and practice. Yet, all they can think of is getting out of class to go home and look at T.V., go clubbing, spend hours talking on a cell phone, or playing some silly video game.

    These are all people who are unemployed, underemployed,living with someone else, on some form of government assistance, and don’t seem to care. They are mostly women, who care more about purchasing fake nails, wigs, or whatever the latest fad is. Changing their literacy level will first require changing cavalier attitudes about literacy. If not impossible, it is certainly an uphill battle.

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