May 2, 2017

Poverty and Early Literacy

Most of us can’t imagine a home without any books—certainly not in Canada. And if we did, we might assume it’s because the residents of that home don’t care about reading. As it turns out, there are many myths that abound about book ownership.

Myths and reality about book ownership

Myth #1: Most households have plenty of books, or at least can afford to.

Reality: Research from the U.S. and Calgary Reads’ own Reading Place schools tells us this is not the case. More than 50% of Canadian households don’t spend any money on books and 61% of households in the U.S. contain no books at all.

Myth #2: Families without books lack interest in reading.

Reality: “When poor people, even those at low literacy levels, have a little extra money, they will buy inexpensive books. But some families have so little disposable income, they can’t afford any books.” – Susan B. Newman, University of Michigan

Myth #3: Children can find good books at school or at the library.

Reality: While this is true, most school and classroom libraries are underfunded and unable to meet demand. According to Indigo Books & Music, “the school book budget for one child in the 1970s must stretch to cover nine children today.” Many families also don’t live near a library branch.

Myth #4: Calgary is a wealthy city.

Reality: Not everyone is wealthy. In Calgary, nearly 1 in 7, or 13.8%, of children live in low-income households. There are nearly 300 homeless children in Calgary and Brown Bagging for Calgary’s Kids provides lunch to 3,200 school children every day.

Data released from Scholastic’s Kids and Family Reading Report 2017 tells us that households with an income over $100,000 average 127 books, while those with an income below $35,000 average 69 books.

Childhood poverty has negative impacts on literacy

Children who grow up in poverty are at greater risk of struggling with reading for a variety of reasons. They are more likely to:

  • Grow up in homes without books or print (newspapers, magazines, etc.) and may have difficulty in visiting a public library because of time, language or transportation barriers
  • Live in poorer neighbourhoods that have fewer libraries and bookstores (and a smaller selection of quality books in each bookstore). In the most extreme example reported in one study, a wealthy community had 16,000 children’s titles for sale compared to just 55 in a poorer community in the same city
  • Have parents or caregivers with low-literacy skills who are less able to support their children’s reading by reading aloud to them, modelling reading, or valuing reading themselves
  • Experience less talking and encouragement at home, leading to a word gap up to 32 million fewer words heard by age 4 than their middle-class peers.

Books combat poverty

Because education is one of the best cures for poverty, one of the easiest ways to improve early literacy is also a tool for fighting poverty. The “mere presence” of books improves academic outcomes for children and as few as 20 books in the home has a significant impact, with the benefits increasing as more books are added. Children of lesser-educated parents benefit the most from having books in the home.

Increasing book ownership is a key strategy for Calgary Reads. In the past two years the Calgary Reads Book Bank has distributed more than 14,000 children’s books to over 2,100 families that are clients of the Calgary Food Bank, many of whom own books for the first time. We also have programs that donate books to children through their schools and to babies and infants through public health nurses. Schools, Little Free Library stewards, and community agencies are invited to our Big Book Sale Unsold Event to pick up books. Through these measures and corporate and community book drives, and building awareness about the issue, we are helping to shift the book imbalance in Calgary.

“In low-income families, time as well as money are scarce, and books may be considered a costly luxury.”  -The Urban Child Institute

 Research & Resources

A Book in Every Home, and Then Some: The New York Times

Lost for Words: Poor Literacy, the Hidden Issue in Child Poverty

Who Buys Books and Magazines in Canada?


April 20, 2017

Read, Eat, Savour a Poem

The final days of April are fast approaching and I’m wondering if you’ve had your fill of poetry this month?  Since 1998 (the same year that Calgary Reads was ‘born’) National Poetry Month has been celebrated in Canada to increase awareness and appreciation of poets and poems.

I hope, not just this month but all year long, you read Shel Silverstein aloud as a family, chant the rhymes of Dennis Lee together in a classroom and rush to the Dewey Decimal 811 section in the library (which is just like 911) for a poetry emergency because you are starving to hear words that sing.

Nourish your soul this month by finding a quiet moment to gobble up a poem alone or in the delightful company of children.

How To Eat a Poem
by Eve Merriam

Don’t be polite.
Bite in.
Pick it up with your fingers and lick the juice that
may run down your chin.

It is ready and ripe now, whenever you are. You do not need a knife or fork or spoon
or plate or napkin or tablecloth.

For there is no core
or stem
or rind
or pit
or seed
or skin
to throw away.

Savour some Mary Oliver, a prolific Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, who writes in her latest book Upstream, about her friend and ‘shadow-companion’ Walt Whitman:

“First and foremost, I learned from Whitman that the poem is a temple – or a green field – a place to enter, and in which to feel. Only in a secondary way is it an intellectual thing – an artifact, a moment of seemly and robust wordiness – wonderful as that part of it is. I learned that the poem was made not just to exist, but to speak – to be company. It was everything that was needed when everything was needed.”

Read a poem, write a poem, recite a poem, eat a poem this month and remember what it feels like to be satisfied.


March 31, 2017

Math and Early Literacy

“Language proficiency, no matter how it is measured, is related to mathematics achievement.”  -Walter Secada, Northwestern University.

You may recall from your school days that classmates of yours who were at the top of the class in math were also often among the best at reading and English. That wasn’t a coincidence, as reading and math skills are closely linked together for numerous reasons.

The nonprofit Kids Come First published a report last month highlighting declining math scores in Calgary. According to the report, almost 20% fewer students in Calgary achieve “excellence” on the Grade 6 math provincial achievement test (PAT) than four years ago, while the Grade 9 math PAT failure rate is 28%. In addition, 35% of Calgary Grade 12 students don’t even take Math 30. Calgary Reads sees the spotlight on math scores as an opportunity to explore how math achievement is tied to reading.

Success at reading enables success in all subjects

Many studies have recognized the connection between reading ability and math achievement. Firstly, most math problems are word problems that often pack a lot of information into each sentence. Solving these requires a clear understanding of the language. Secondly, literacy and numeracy share many of the same thinking skills: deriving meaning from symbols (either letters or signs), word recognition, and comprehension. Alberta Education’s Ministerial Order on Student Learning recognizes the importance of literacy and numeracy in constructing and communicating meaning.

Reading helps improve math skills

Vocabulary knowledge and print knowledge are the strongest predictors of math performance, as the more words children know, the easier they are able to understand the problem. Reading aloud is a wonderful way to build vocabulary, as children’s books contain three times as many rare words as parent/child speech. Children’s literature has also been shown to improve math achievement and motivation in young children, even when there is no math content in the story.

By reading with their children for 15 minutes every day, parents are helping build not just language skills but math skills as well. Reading texts in everyday items like flyers, coupons, the sports pages, and recipes is another great way to combine words and numbers.

Every teacher should remember that he or she is a teacher of literacy, as students often don’t learn all the literacy skills they need in the language arts classroom alone. For all subjects, students must be able to read. Before we teach students skills in other subjects, we must ensure they can read. Literacy is key to success in school at every level.

Research & Resources

Reading and Math: What is the Connection? A Short Review of the Literature, Dr. Gene Fite

The Relationship Between Reading Comprehension and Conceptual Mathematics of Third Grade Students at a Selected Elementary School, Patrick N. Kariuki and Dustin A. Morris

Impacts of Authentic Children’s Literature and Literacy Strategies on Teaching Mathematical Comprehension In Elementary Grades, Elizabeth M. Sliwa