Are We Willing to Invest in Childhood Literacy?
August 18, 2021
Last month’s signature from Governor DeSantis on HB-3, the “New Worlds Reading Initiative,” is a promising sign amid a challenging school year for students, teachers, and families.
This new law creates Florida’s first statewide book distribution program. This program provides children in kindergarten through fifth grade who are reading below grade level access to free, high-quality books delivered directly to their home.
Access to books can change the trajectory of a child's life. Growing up, my family lived far away from the nearest library, and access to books at home was an issue that went unaddressed. Having books delivered to my home as a child would’ve been a game changer in my early years. Now, as a Managing Director with Teach For America working in Title I schools across the state, I've witnessed this same issue first-hand in the classrooms where our educators serve. Research coincides with my experience and what I've seen possible when students have the opportunity to engage with grade-level texts and access to rigorous, quality reading instruction.
Several studies point to how early exposure to books at home promotes language development, brain development, and a broader understanding of the world around us. Students that read at home for just 20 minutes a day starting in kindergarten will hear 1.8 million more words per year than those students who don't have access to books at home. They will have read more than 851 hours more than their peers who don't have books at home by the time they reach 6th grade (wcpo.com).
According to a recent analysis, 43% of third-grade students in Florida read below grade level. A separate report from the Florida Department of Education found that 54% of third-grade students scored “satisfactory” or above on this year’s state English-language arts exam, a 4 percent-point decrease from 2019. We don't yet know the full extent of learning loss caused by the pandemic, but it is clear that childhood literacy is not where it should be across the state.
As a member of the Teach For America network in Florida, we are committed to providing students in communities of most need access to an excellent and equitable education. We know that falling behind in reading is not merely the effect of remote learning or the pandemic; it's the result of an inequitable education system--a system that often funnels money and resources to the most affluent communities rather than the marginalized, disenfranchised communities where kids are asked to do more with less.
As an organization committed to excellence and equity in education and a partner serving communities of need, we experience firsthand incredible student potential in all of our communities. We've seen transformational progress when students are exposed to literacy-rich environments and when educators are trained and supported in understanding the science of reading. As such, we're committed to the goal: By the year 2030, twice as many children in communities where we work across Florida will reach key educational milestones indicating they are on a path to economic mobility and co-creating a future filled with possibility.
House Speaker Chris Sprowls' New Worlds Reading Initiative acknowledges and addresses at least one gap in opportunity that exists for so many students who struggle with reading: access to books in their homes. While we still have a lot of work ahead of us, the passage of this law that was introduced and sponsored by Representative Dana Trabulsy is a step in the right direction.
Learning loss is real; increasing childhood literacy and hitting third grade reading milestones puts students on a path to success. As Governor DeSantis said during a recent press conference, “90% of children who fail to earn a high school diploma struggled to read in grade 3.” Services, supports, and legislation in the spirit of HB-3 are the kind of common-sense actions we need to address recovery, invest in communities, and unleash student potential.
Von Johnson is a former City Commissioner for DeLand and the current Managing Director of External Affairs for Teach For America regions across Florida.