Get online! It’s story time! Let’s talk about literacy and equity

by Patricia Hilliard

Serious gaps in reading achievement and access to children’s print materials still persist, and educators are becoming more creative in how they reach their students. Digital learning tools are poised to be helpful in increasing children’s literacy skills and combating the inequities that many students face.

The benefits of reading aloud to a child are well-documented and long-withstanding. It promotes brain development, stimulates their imagination, helps them focus and develop longer attention spans, provides examples of how communication takes place, and fosters a life-long love for reading. 

Unfortunately, not every child lives in a home where she is read a story before bedtime. To make matters even more difficult, not every child lives in a community with a bookstore or attends a school with a library. Though online commerce has drastically increased over the years, most print materials for children are still bought in a brick-and-mortar store. 

In recent years, researchers have uncovered book deserts or geographic areas with little or no access to age-appropriate print materials. The proliferation of book deserts seems to relate to income. One pivotal study analyzed neighborhoods in Washington DC, Detroit, and Los Angeles. For each city, they selected two different neighborhoods. One neighborhood was identified as high poverty with a poverty rate of 40% or more; the other neighborhood was called a borderline area with a poverty rate of 18 to 40%. The researchers traveled street by street and tallied the number of print materials available for purchase at any store (newsstands, department stores, convenient, toy, thrift, and grocery stores). They found that the most common place to purchase children’s books was the Dollar Store. There were no bookstores in three of the neighborhoods. The “best” finding was in the borderline neighborhood in Los Angeles where there was one age-appropriate book per child. Conversely, the researchers found only one age-appropriate book per 830 children in Anacostia (Washington DC). 

Luckily, this study and other research findings have spawned programs like Soar with Reading, which has donated over $2.75 million in books to areas identified as book deserts. Most recently, more and more individuals are using digital learning to mitigate the inequities posed by book deserts. Dr. Belinda George is an elementary school principal in Beaumont, Texas, where the majority of families are described as economically disadvantaged. At 7:30pm on Tuesdays, Dr. George gets into a fuzzy onesie and reads a book to her students. She calls this story time Tucked in Tuesdays. Similarly, Archie Moss, principal of an elementary school in Memphis, Texas, was looking for different ways to infuse literacy into students’ lives outside of school. The school sits adjacent to the city’s poorest neighborhoods, and only 15% of students were reading at grade level. Both principals started reading bedtime stories on Facebook Live as an attempt to spark children’s passion for reading and increase access to those with little or no print materials at home. 

Two sisters in Dover, Delaware, have joined the streaming bedtime stories movement. Hailey and Zaria are 13 and 8, respectively. They wanted to share their love of reading with the world and share stories about characters that looked like them, i.e., African American. The girls started reading bedtime stories on Facebook and Instagram in March of 2019. In the beginning, they had about 50 views per night, and now it has grown to over 12,000 views. Their mother has read to them since birth. The girls considered it a privilege and wanted to make sure all children had the same opportunities regardless of circumstance. 

Red Cedar Elementary School in Beaufort County, South Carolina, started a Foxes Summer Bedtime Stories program earlier this month. The school’s student population is highly diverse (70% minority enrollment), and it is a Title I school. The series was designed to ignite an enjoyment for books. The staff also wanted children to continue to hear someone read to them during the summer months when parent schedules did not allow for at-home reading time. The Foxes Summer Bedtime Stories is available every Tuesday and Thursday night at 7:00pm.

It is far too early to determine if streaming bedtime stories is an effective literacy strategy, but the stakes are too high for us to solely rely upon large corporations or non-profit organizations to hydrate the book deserts. It is a sad reality that in the United States in 2019, millions of children live in communities where neither the child nor the caretaker can go to a library to borrow a book or simply buy one from a local store. I applaud all of the educators, formal and informal, who are uncovering innovative ways using digital learning to stimulate children’s imagination and build their passion for reading.

About the Author

Dr. Patricia Hilliard serves as a Research Associate and Digital Innovation Coach at the Friday Institute for Education Innovation where she works with school districts to design, deliver, and implement professional learning to meet the needs of all students through a personalized, blended, and/or digital learning environment.