DC Reading Program Boosts Child Literacy

As a part of Education Week, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and the Director of the D.C. Public Library Richard Reyes-Gavilan announced a new component of the Sing, Talk and Read program called Books from Birth project on Feb. 4. The initiative, introduced to the D.C. Council by Councilmember Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), will send all children under five who are registered as D.C. residents and signed up by a parent or legal guardian a free book every month.

The program will also work to connect families with the full range of resources offered by the D.C. Public Library, such as adult literacy assistance and other components of the STAR early literacy program.

Books from Birth is funded by local tax dollars and the District is managing the distribution of the books through a partnership with the Dollywood Foundation’s Imagination Library. Dolly Parton developed the Dollywood Foundation’s Imagination Library in 1995 for her native Sevier County in Tennessee. Parton offers to replicate the program in any community. In D.C.’s case, the Dollywood Foundation will provide financial support for Books from Birth.

The Books from Birth program had a soft launch in January and there are already more than 2,900 children enrolled.

Allen got the idea for the project when he went to visit family in Tennessee and witnessed his then 2-year-old niece light up when she received a book from the Imagination Library program.

“What has bothered me for a long time is the achievement gap that we have in our city,” Allen said. “We know that it’s real and we know that it’s persistent. What we started doing was trying to think through how to make a substantial improvement in closing the achievement gap.”

Allen emphasized his desire to preemptively attack the problem of the achievement gap rather than wait for more data to come about. Allen believes that the achievement gap is directly connected to what he calls the word gap in the classroom, a disparity related to a child’s access to books at home.

“We know that early childhood literacy is incredibly important and we know that a child who has books in the home and who is read to will hear 30 million more words by the time they are four than a child who doesn’t and that’s what we define as the word gap,” Allen said.

Allen said he wanted to tackle the word gap based on his experience with other states’ programs.

“We looked at other programs in Tennessee and Providence and other places with similar programs and many have seen 10-point even 15-point increases in test scores on reading but also on math and science,” Allen said. “So we know that if you can attack the word gap early on you can make a really big difference in child literacy outcomes.”

According to Allen, the project’s responsibilities are specifically housed within the D.C. Public Library system, and the D.C. Public Library chose to work with the Imagination Library because has an established purchasing power and network for distribution.

Media Relations Manager of the D.C. Public Library George Williams (B’99) explained the goal of Books from Birth is to prepare the District’s youth to start school as well as encourage more parents to engage in reading with their children. According to Williams, the books sent to the children are selected by professionals within the Imagination Library with the goal of reflecting a diversity of cultures and people, while promoting self-esteem and the development of a love of reading.

“STAR Books from Birth is based on research showing that parents/caregivers engaging with a baby through conversations, gestures and positive interactions helps a baby’s brain develop,” Williams wrote in an email to The Hoya.”

Program Director of D.C. Reads Carly Finnegan is positive about the Books from Birth project and emphasized the need for such a program in the District.

“There is a pretty significant literacy achievement gap in DC and much of the research supports that the gaps in literacy development happen before students even enter the school system,” Finnegan wrote in an email to The Hoya.

Finnegan referenced the statistic that one in three D.C. residents is illiterate and described how illiteracy is produced by delayed literacy development from a very young age. For students coming into the D.C. Public School system who are already behind on literacy development, it is especially difficult to catch up to their peers.

“Many students never make up for the gaps in their literacy skills that can begin as early as birth,” Finnegan wrote. “Schools are doing a lot of work to help close these gaps and initiatives like Books from Birth will continue to help support that work.”

Allen added though the program is a step in the right direction, he does not expect to see immediate drastic changes.

“This will not change things overnight. Early childhood is about an investment and about putting things in that you are not necessarily going to see the results of tomorrow. It’s going to take some time,” Allen said. “Thousands of people have already signed up, which is phenomenal but you’re not going to change child literacy overnight.”

In looking to the future, Allen hopes to see the project expand into the surrounding area and has already been in contact with Montgomery County about establishing a similar program there.

“For me, we are a great city and this is just what we do for our kids,” Allen said. “Great cities make sure there are books and there are libraries and that we put a priority on literacy.”

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