And the Gap Gets Bigger


Recently my daughter (living 2400 miles away) sent me a video clip of my 22 month old granddaughter Brenna “reading” Brown Bear, Brown Bear.  Of course I was thrilled to see how those months of reading aloud to her were paying off.  She turned the pages, made up the story, and although her speech wasn’t always clear, you could hear the pattern every now and then “T-sher, T-sher, what do you see?”  But though I’m excited about my own grandchild’s progress, I can’t help but wonder about all those other preschoolers who don’t have the advantages that Brenna has.

I worry a lot about all those homes with very little or no books, with no literate parents or adults in the home, no computers or internet access, and so on. Some parents I know work three jobs just to put food on the table – there is no extra money for books or supplies and no extra time to read, write, or tell stories with their children.  No matter how you look at it, poverty plays a big role in affecting how much of a literate background some kids will begin school with.  And the job of closing the gap falls on the teachers in those early grades.  Blaming the parents or the home environment does nothing to solve the problem.  We know that.

And let’s not forget the technology gap that will also affect these same students.  I was listening to a discussion on NPR radio one day about how kids of the future will be so different because of all their computer knowledge. One father called in and told how he got smart phones for his children so that when they toured Washington D. C. they could log onto a special site that enhanced what they were observing at the museums. As the world gets more and more linked in, what is happening to the others who have very little opportunity and experience with technology?  The poor won’t have those same advantages as the caller on the NPR program.  And that gap will only get bigger.  We have got to get to the root of the problem and do something about those families living below the poverty line!  We have to admit that socio-economic status does correlate at times with children’s success in literacy.

I certainly don’t have all the answers, however, it would make sense to me if we turned our attention to (and poured more tax dollars into) more Headstart programs, more excellent quality pre-schools FREE for children living in poverty, more early intervention programs like Reading Recovery once children start school, and so on.

Here is a quote I keep on my desk at home: “Literacy is inseparable from opportunity, and opportunity is inseparable from freedom.  The freedom promised by literacy is both freedom from — from ignorance, oppression, poverty — and freedom to — to do new things, to make choices, to learn.” Koichiro Matsuura (former UNESCO director.)

Brenna has four more school years at home (in daycare and preschools) before kindergarten.  The literate background and extended vocabulary she will begin kindergarten with will be astounding!  How will we (primary K-2 teachers) close the gap for all those other children? How can teachers support the literacy acquisition of every single one of their students?

5 Comments

  1. Starting the year with my kindergarteners it is astounding to see the differences in literacy understanding among my students. I have students who live in the same apartment building, from families with similar economic disadvantages, educations, and home language. Those who went to Headstart, even for one year, know so much more about literacy, math, school, and the world than those who have not. The difference is breathtaking. I wish all my students who qualify could have had a preschool experience like this–it would go a long way in closing the gap.

  2. I think one really key practice is having a print-rich classroom and providing students with tons of literacy opportunities. Modeling and enforcing the routines of reading within the classroom will help students carry them over into home life– perhaps if children (rather than parents) are the ones who begin the routine of reading at home, the parents will follow by providing books and trips to the library. Of course, that is only if parents can make that happen.

    A teacher’s classroom library is the biggest window of opportunity for a child who has little to resources or parent involvement.

  3. Kassia – thanks for your comment. You have seen firsthand what we are talking about. It sounds like the Headstart program at your school does a fantastic job with kids. That’s important — QUALITY preschool classrooms!

    Jennifer – You are right about a “print-rich environment.” We’ve got to turn those kids onto books asap, so that they’ll want to read at home. Lending them books from our classroom libraries is a good start, but then teaching them about public libraries early. I’m surprised at how many of our ELL students don’t have library cards. Their parents sometimes seem reluctant or fearful of using libraries. One child told me, “my mom is afraid I’ll lose the books and then we’ll have to pay.” Thanks for reading and commenting!

  4. Hi Pat,

    I agree deeply with all that’s been posted. I would also include a rich parent education program. As you mentioned, parents often work several jobs and simply don’t have time…but I’ve always wondered about the impact of home visits throughout the elementary school years (in addition to what Headstart does). What would it be like if lower income parents had mentors to organize family trips, discuss nutrition and talk to parents about how to read to their child in the comfort of their own home or in the home of a neighbor? What if parents received board books at the hospital to take home for their newborns? What if we had a national agenda focused on the importance of education and the detriment of leaving children in front of t.v. sets (and the slew of commercials they are prematurely exposed to)? I know, I know…to many what if’s. In the meantime, yes – read alouds, songs, stories, print rich environments and on and on and on!

  5. Great comments! I completely agree that the issue of poverty is a HUGE issue that must be addressed if we are ever to close the gap. At the same time, we must do all we possibly can as teachers to give students of poverty a rich, meaningful education and play “catch up” for some of the experiences our more privileged children have had.
    I also think we need to celebrate and build upon the non-school based literacy practices that our children bring to our classrooms. Having lots of opportunities for meaningful play in the early years is critical in helping us build vocabulary and oral language development as we connect these experiences to school based literacy. Our children who have opportunities for dramatic play, building with blocks and legos, exploring with sensory boxes, or playing with puppets for example, can show us what they DO know – which may look very different from what we, as teachers, expect them to know (or what state standards require). For example, the child who plays “clean the house” in dramatic play because she has gone to work with her mom all summer while her mom cleans houses provides us an opportunity to build upon the language, sequencing, retelling of an experience, etc. and lets us connect that knowledge to a more school-based way of thinking in regards to how books work or how writing works while children are making books. I think we need to be more aware of the home literacies that our children bring and make sure we are honoring and celebrating all they can do – while we continue to work towards bridging home literacies with school literacies.

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