• Amy Hay

Read To Your Kids So They Don’t End Up In Jail

Updated: Nov 4, 2021

It sounds extreme, but there’s plenty of research to back it up.

Most of you reading this blog post are probably already passionate about reading, most likely writing, and possess an intermediate or advanced literacy level. This means that if you are a parent, you probably already read to your kid(s) and actively promote literacy in your home.

So What’s The Deal?

The COVID-19 pandemic completely altered the K-12 school experience of kids and teens across America. It also completely altered your work-life balance— if you were privileged enough to have a job that offered you one in the first place. How much “distance learning” did your kid actually engage in over the past year compared to the time they would have normally spent in a classroom, away from distractions at home? And how much reading or literacy related activities really happened during that time? Homeschoolers may have fared okay, but 90% of American students attend public school.

4th Grade Is The Watershed Year

COVID-19 is exacerbating opportunity gaps, particularly in student performance and equity. Pandemic-relevant research reveals that reduced learning time has likely impeded student learning and also affected the development of the whole child, leading to chronic absenteeism and increasing those at risk of falling behind or becoming disengaged and eventually dropping out.

According to a special report, Early Warning, from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “…the process of dropping out begins long before high school. It stems from loss of interest in middle school, often triggered by retention in grade…and that, in a great many cases, is the result of not being able to read proficiently as early as fourth grade.”

Reading on grade-level by the 4th grade is one of the most critical milestones in education. Studies show that 74% of 3rd graders who read poorly still struggle in ninth grade, and 3rd grade reading scores can predict a student’s likelihood to graduate high school. Donald Hernandez reported in Double Jeopardy, children who do not read proficiently by the end of third grade are four times more likely to leave school without a diploma than proficient readers. While those with the lowest reading scores account for only a third of students, this group accounts for more than 63% of all children who do not graduate from high school.

The Parents

It is a well-known fact that illiteracy passes from generation to generation, so you can’t blame teachers for doing a bad job. Children can attend K-12 school, but if parents are not promoting and encouraging literacy at home, children can still fall behind in reading comprehension and never catch up. This leads to more serious life challenges down the road.

According to UNESCO’s “8 Learning Families – Intergenerational Approaches to Literacy Teaching and Learning”:

“Many children around the world attend school but do not learn to read, write,

or calculate… Many of these [now grown] adults experienced such frustration as

children that they deliberately avoid literacy-related activities in later life. When they

have children of their own, they tend to communicate (often non-verbally) their

negative feelings towards literacy and schooling to their children, and thus

perpetuate an intergenerational cycle of illiteracy.”

Now you have your grandchildren to think about.

Illiteracy And Crime Are Closely Related

A low level of literacy is not a direct determinant for a person’s probability to be convicted on criminal charges, but correctional and judicial professionals have long recognized a connection between poor literacy, dropout rates, and crime.

The Department of Justice states, "The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure."

2/3 of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of 4th grade will end up in jail or on welfare.

The educational level of the prison population differs significantly from that of the household population being over-represented with individuals having below average levels of education. According to the National Adult Literacy Survey, 70% of all incarcerated adults cannot read at a 4th grade level, “meaning they lack the reading skills to navigate many everyday tasks or hold down anything but lower (paying) jobs.” Paul Romero, a correction official once noted, “With legal means of succeeding in society narrowed, illiteracy is heavily implicated in the crimes landing many behind bars in the first place.”

Literacy Begins In The Home

My father was a professional journeyman and model maker for the federal government and my mother was a homemaker. Neither of them were avid readers, per se, but they modeled their positive feelings toward literacy in powerful ways. I have so many fun childhood memories attached to learning how to read, reading before bed, access to bookshelves full of books, trips to the library, and finding stories that captured my imagination and taught me about the world.

Research by the U.S. Department of Education found that “children who are read to at least three times a week by a family member are almost twice as likely to score in the top 25% in reading compared to children who are read to less than three times a week.”

Research in Social Stratification and Mobility (2010) also found that “children growing up in homes with many books get three years more schooling than children from bookless homes, independent of their parents’ education, occupation, and class.”

With all of the stress and pressure caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, promoting literacy at home and reading to your kids can easily fall to the back burner. Yes, things have gotten better, per se, as US states and counties open back up, but we’re not out of the woods yet and people are still unsure about the future, especially when it comes to their kids returning to school. I mean, honestly, will it last? If so, for how long? No one knows.

Additionally, if you’re still stressed, depressed, and financially strapped due to a job or housing loss, it’s definitely easier to plop your little ones in front of the TV or hand them an iPad and tell them to entertain themselves (while you focus on bigger problems like your sanity and putting food on the table) instead of “promoting literacy in the home” like the good parent you really are.

The good news is, you can return to promoting literacy in your home whenever you want. You can pick up where you left off, start fresh with new ideas, or, if you are a parent-to-be, bolster your own love for literacy and create a lifestyle plan for your future family.

Make it Fun

Whatever your child’s age, there are many fun, easy, and mostly free (or low cost!) ways to make reading enjoyable and model the value of literacy at home.

Start young (newborn— 3 years old):

Even if your baby hasn’t learned to speak yet, reading to them helps their brain associate phonetic sounds with information about the world around them, an important pre-literacy skill. Access to baby books allows them to feel and sense the pages; incorporating foam alphabet letters during bath time and providing alphabet fridge magnets also encourages pre-literacy skills.

Mary Ann Abrams, MD, MPH, said it best in, “Early Literacy: Why Reading is Important To A Child’s Development”:

“Building literacy and language skills help children be kindergarten-ready, so

they enter school with a love of books and ready to learn. This is important for

school success because eventually they move from learning to read, to reading to

learn. At that point, if children struggle with reading, they’ll struggle with learning.

This is also important for self-esteem, and building resilience to avoid drugs and

resist peer pressure.”

Read before bed

I have warm memories of snuggling with my mom or dad as they read to me before bed. They’d tell me to go to my room and pick out some books from my bookshelf, and of course I’d always pick out, like, 12. My mom would see the stack and promptly tell me to pick five out of the stack of 12, and I did. Of those five, she’d tell me to pick out the top three I most wanted her to read to me. And I did. Sometimes, she would just read them to me. Later, when I was learning to read and pronounce more complicated words, she’d pause and challenge me to sound out a certain word or even complete the sentence.

Reading to a child before bed not only fosters a safe and nurturing home environment, but provides valuable parent-child bonding time, sparks their imagination, promotes better sleep, and of course, encourages the love of reading.

Get them a library card

I clearly remember how excited I was when my mom took me to the library to get a library card in my own name. I think I was six. I picked out all the books I wanted from the kid’s section (I had, like, 20), pulled my library card out of my pink Hello Kitty wallet and gave it to the librarian to check out my books. Having a library card not only taught me personal responsibility and accountability, but showed me that I “owned” the ability to access knowledge and information whenever I wanted.

Trips to the library became a normal part of our family lifestyle. It also became a cure-all for boredom and an easy excuse to get out of the house. “You’re bored? Then let’s go to the library and see what new things we can discover.”

Enroll in summer reading programs

Summer reading is a fun, rewarding, and important part of summer vacation. It also helps combat the “summer slide” or loss of reading skills that many students experience when not in the classroom. Summer reading programs typically involve fun games in the form of reading challenges where the number of books a child reads helps them move through the games and win prizes.

Every summer, my mom enrolled me in the reading program at our local library. Even on the years I didn’t feel like participating she forced me to sign up anyway. (Gold star for mom.)

I know, I know. COVID-19. Thankfully, many libraries and book retailers moved their summer reading program online, where kids can engage in the program and track their progress online. Crisis averted. You’re welcome.

In Short

Read to your kids and promote a love for literacy as often as possible. You can’t control world events or the state of the economy, and you certainly can’t control the decisions they make when they grow up, but as a parent, you can absolutely give them every possible advantage to succeed in life by reading to them and spending quality time with them.

Looking for other fun ways to introduce reading to your kids? Check out these articles and additional resources below.

Articles & Resources:

Photo by Michael Ainsworth, via The Atlantic.

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