Libraries Are The Key To Literacy

Libraries are the Key to Literacy

It won’t come as a surprise that literacy is important to libraries — after all, they’re the repository of vast quantities of reading materials they want people to be able to use. But there are considerably more reasons for libraries to support literacy efforts. From learning to read so children can read to learn through to work, health, and civic life libraries are focused on making sure everyone can read at their own level.

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How Bad Is It?

The National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) reports that 21 percent of U.S. adults are either illiterate or functionally illiterate (the latter meaning someone who has had some reading education, but not enough to be considered literate). For children, nearly 2/3 of fourth-graders read below grade level, a figure that doesn’t change much as they move into middle and high school. The NCES also reports that children of illiterate adults are likely to read below grade level, so there’s a connection.

Struggling with reading doesn’t just mean having trouble reading a book or newspaper. It contributes to adverse health care outcomes when people can’t read or understand directives from their providers. That could also explain why a study done by Harvard University found that people with at least 12 years of education had a longer lifespan than those who did not.

It also affects employment and poverty levels. The National Institute of Literacy reports that nearly half of adults with the lowest literacy levels live in poverty. The lack of literacy can make it difficult for them to acquire or retain a well-paying job.

Factoring literacy rates and poverty/unemployment leads to another bleak statistic: The Department of Justice has conducted studies showing that 75 percent of state prison inmates either didn’t complete high school or are classified as low literate. Another study done by the Washing State Institute for Public Policy showed that giving inmates general education reduced recidivism by 7 percent.

What Libraries Are Doing

With so much at stake, libraries have come up with innovative, thoughtful solutions that have literacy as a focus (for all ages), but other benefits as well.

For example, the Free Library of Philadelphia created its Edible Alphabet program, which combines literacy, second-language learning, and cooking. What’s more, it provides a much-needed social connection for participants as they help each other learn.

New Haven’s Free Public Library offers READy for the Grade, a summer program that provides tutoring for K-3 students to help them achieve grade level reading skills. The program also includes weekly family nights, along with tutor-parent communication to help reinforce the importance of what the students are learning. Engaging the family can help strengthen family bonds and demonstrate to children how valuable this is.

Houston Public Library has the Family Learning Involvement Program (FLIP), which provides FLIP kits for various age groups from infant through third grade. Kits include a book and a related activity for families to do together at home. Kits are available in English, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Urdu, and Arabic.

A program called The Leaders Library Card Challenge has schools and libraries partnering to try to have every K-12 student in the system supplied with — and taught how to use — a library card. Once they have the card, students are able to access library resources through school computers, which not only increases their reading literacy, but helps them understand the vast range of resources available.

In El Paso, the library system has an extensive English as a Second Language program, since the city is on the Mexican border. But the program is not a straightforward English grammar class. Instead, the library focuses on what participants need most: Being able to talk to and understand their child’s teachers and doctor, how to fill out forms, or manage a trip to the grocery store.

A similar customization occurred in the California State Library system, where a family and adult literacy program is tailored to specific participants. People interested in the program are paired either with a one-on-one tutor or in a small group. They identify their own goal, whether it’s to read better for themselves or to get a better job, and the tutoring evolves to reflect that.

These are just a few examples of what libraries are doing to improve literacy, and demonstrate why libraries are a critical component in the work being done around literacy. Available in nearly every town and neighborhoods, libraries are open to everyone and have trained staff implementing innovative programs tailored to fit their specific communities. They are, as always, out there doing amazing work.