The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) recently approved a new 6.6 billion budget for the strained school system, where 80 percent of attending students live in poverty. Earlier this year, literacy expert Stephen Krashen, professor emeritus at the University of Southern California Los Angeles, delivered a powerful, five-minute presentation to the LAUSD board, “Why Invest in Libraries.” His remarks addressed the stubborn intersection of poverty, poor literacy, and limited book access. Citing his own research and other studies, Krashen argued that investing in libraries offers a path to literacy for economically disadvantaged children. Below is a condensed version of Krashen’s remarks, as well as a video of his full presentation.
The impact of poverty on educational achievement has been documented again and again. Poverty means, among other things, inadequate diet, lack of health care, and lack of access to books. Each of these has a powerful impact on achievement. The best teaching in the world has little effect when children are hungry, undernourished, ill, and have little or nothing to read.
Free, voluntary reading is a key factor in literacy development. During sustained silent reading (SSR), a short period is set aside for self-selected reading, with little or no accountability. Students who participate in SSR studies consistently outperform other students on measures of literacy. In other studies, free voluntary reading has been a successful predictor of scores on the TEOFL test among ESL students.
In case history after case history, free voluntary reading is given credit for academic success and for the development of higher literacy levels.
“I loved reading, and my mother, who read voraciously too, allowed me to have her novels after she finished them,“ says the subject of on case history, Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the the Harlem Children’s Zone, an organization devoted to interrupting generational poverty. “My strong reading background allowed me to have an easier time of it in most of my classes.“
In another case study, a woman named Liz Murray, who grew up in extreme poverty in New York City, says that she only showed up for school just before the spring exams in order see what the tests would be like. Murray says she owed her education to her father‘s habit of borrowing library books from all over the city and never returning them.
“Any formal education I received came from the few days I spent in attendance, mixed with knowledge I absorbed from random readings of my or Daddy’s ever-growing supply of un-returned library books,“ Murray says. “And as long as I still showed up steadily the last few weeks of classes to take the standardized tests, I kept squeaking by from grade to grade.”
Libraries can make up for the effects of poverty
Poor children have very few books at home, live in neighborhoods with few bookstores and inferior public libraries, and attend schools with inferior classroom and school libraries, according to my research. The major source of books for children of poverty is libraries. In fact, libraries are their only chance.
One of my own studies showed that the school library had a strong positive effect which balanced the poverty’s negative impact. This makes sense: A major reason that poor children have low reading test scores is because they have little access to books. When we supply access, in the form of libraries, they read about as well as children from more affluent families. The study showed that those receiving more direct instruction in reading actually did somewhat worse on a reading examination.
The Los Angeles Unified School District
The child poverty rate for the US is 23.1 percent, the second highest among all advanced economy countries. This is the major reason for our unspectacular performance on international tests. Finland, which always scores at or near the top of the world in reading achievement, has only 5.3 percent child poverty. Eighty percent of LAUSD children live in poverty, the second highest of all big U.S. cities. This means few books. For LAUSD students, libraries are of little help.
In the public library category of the “America’s Most Literate Cities“ study, L.A. public libraries ranked near the basement: 69th out of 77 cities.
Several studies confirm that the presence of a certified librarian is an independent predictor of reading achievement. In the U.S., there is one school librarian for every 916 students. California ranks last, with a ratio of approximately one school librarian per 5,124 students. LAUSD has one certified school librarian for every 6,500 students.
It is often suggested that technology can solve the problem of access to books, through computers with Internet access and through ebooks and ebook readers. There is, at present, no evidence to support the current technology fever that has gripped the schools, stimulated by the requirement that all testing related to the Common Core State Standards be online.
The U.S. Department of Education‘s National Education Technology Plan insists that we introduce massive technology into the schools immediately. But jumping in without proper preparation wastes our students’ time and will cost more money in the long run.
In contrast, we have an astonishing amount of evidence that providing access to interesting, comprehensible books has a strong impact on literacy development. Given access, most students will read these books, and when they do, their vocabulary, grammar, writing style, vocabulary and knowledge of the world will improve.
The conservative, careful, and fiscally responsible path to improving literacy is to invest in libraries and librarians—and delay massive investment in technology until there is good reason to believe that it will really help.