Literacy is key to learning, but Central Michigan University English faculty member April Burke and humanities graduate student Kevin Thomas make the case that even the best literacy practices aren't enough to encourage all children to read.
Economic and societal conditions also influence childhood literacy.
"In order to create a world of frequent readers," Burke said, "ultimately broad societal and economic inequities must be eliminated."
Poverty and unequal access to education limit children's access to literature, Burke said. This often prevents children from becoming regular readers because their teachers can't provide all that is needed to encourage this activity.
"We must end poverty and unequal access to education if we truly want all people to be not only literate but also frequent readers," Burke said. "Our schools need to be adequately funded, and our communities need to have the resources to make literature available to all.
"These are not impossible tasks. They only need to be priorities."
Factors supporting literacy development
Burke and Thomas made their conclusion in an article in the online journal The Looking Glass: New Perspectives on Children's Literature after analyzing the primary findings of the "Kids and Family Reading Report" from Scholastic — the world's largest publisher and distributor of children's books. Scholastic also is a leading provider of core literacy curriculum and professional services.
The Scholastic report highlighted four primary factors that support literacy development:
• Access to books that interest them, which often includes books that represent characters like them.
• Freedom to choose the books they read.
• Time to read in school and at home.
• Encouragement to read, which includes being read to by their teachers and parents.
Burke and Thomas analyzed these findings against a variety of recent literacy education studies and sociological texts such as Michelle Alexander's New York Times bestseller "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness."
The four points make perfect sense, Burke said, but underfunded schools and low-income families can't always buy the number and types of books needed, and finding time to read can be challenging for working-class families.
“We must end poverty
and unequal access to education if we truly want all persons to be not only
literate but also frequent readers.” — April Burke
This project interested Thomas because he believes literacy is closely linked with inequality in society. He has written reviews of children's books and previously worked for two years as a quiz writer for Scholastic.
"Literacy is a form of empowerment and is necessary for self-determination," said Thomas, of Roselle, Illinois.
Burke is a former K-12 teacher who researches education and underrepresented populations. In 2016, she published an article in the American Educational Research Journal that used Indiana statewide data to look at the times it takes for different language minority groups to be reclassified as fluent in English.
"One of my main arguments in this article is that language minority students are not a homogenous population," Burke said. "They have unique needs, and educational policies and practices should be responsive to these needs."