Living In A “Book Desert”

Thirsty For Words

Does forty-five million sound like a lot? That’s the number of words a young child will hear by the age of 4 in families headed up by white collar parents. For those on welfare, the number of words heard plummets to 13 million.

These statistics come from a landmark study that spawned decades of vocabulary-centered interventions, such as the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge, and the Clinton Foundation’s “Too Small to Fail” initiative. But, of course, the issue was never just about the number of words.


In high-poverty areas, the very things that could bridge the 30 million word gap—books—are difficult to come by. And, in many homes, they’re nonexistent.



In a more recent study, researchers from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development found “book deserts” in urban neighborhoods in Detroit, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles.

The investigation of access to print resources—board books, picture books, and informational books—in these cities found that in neighborhoods where there were high concentrations of poverty, there were no bookstores. In some areas, dollar stores were the most common place to buy children’s books, not exactly a source of high quality children’s literature. And while public libraries are extremely valuable, working poor parents struggling to make ends meet find it difficult to visit, especially with some libraries limiting their hours of operation.

Research has shown that the presence of books in the home is directly related to children’s reading achievement. In fact, having as few as 20 books in the home has a significant impact on a child’s ascent to a higher level of educational advancement.

Children growing up with books in their homes reach a higher level of education than those who do not, regardless of nationality, their parent’s education level or economic status.


The Business of Books for the Poor

Since early exposure to words has both immediate and long-term effects on children’s vocabulary, background knowledge, and comprehension skills, the discovery of these “book deserts,” is troublesome. And, the problem is not likely to be solved by the large chain bookstores. Barnes & Noble is struggling to survive, and Borders filed for bankruptcy and closed all of its locations in 2011.

There is powerful evidence that a careful analysis of book availability in poor communities is overdue. Community based organizations serving youth will have to be especially vigilant about assisting parents in getting books into the home, and offering parent training in simple ways to to do guided reading at home with their children, even if English is not their native language.

Parents are a tremendous, front-line resource for schools and CBOs, but they must be engaged, and tapped to help promote literacy in the home. Let’s start by giving families easy access to great, affordable children’s books, close to home.

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