Literacy Should Be a Primary Goal for Our Community

Throughout March, we’ve been emphasizing the importance of early childhood language and literacy for individual children and families, and also for Memphis and Shelby County as a whole. But let’s get more specific: what would our community look like if it were known for its high literacy?

What if Memphis and Shelby County were known for our high literacy? Tweet this!

Literacy Mid-South offers a vivid description: Our community would attract employers offering high-wage jobs because our residents would be more highly qualified. Individuals and families would earn wages that allow them to meet their basic needs and more, resulting in a reduction in poverty and crime. Homes and nearby libraries full of books and other learning opportunities would give children a strong foundation for academic success. Therefore, high school and college graduation rates would rise.

It’s a compelling goal, but how realistic is it, given that 26 percent of adults have literacy skills that are so low that they can’t fill out a job application or figure out a bus schedule? It’s difficult for the rest of us to imagine the routine tasks in our daily lives that become challenges for people with low literacy skills – unable to read information about new government initiatives, to understand reports from teachers about their children, to do comparison shopping, and to participate in programs to learn new job skills.

Worst of all, low literacy often begets low literacy. When reading to their children is beyond parents’ abilities or outside their comfort zone, their children will have few interactions with books and will begin school at a disadvantage. Because of this, Memphis and Shelby County must attack the problem from both sides – with programs for adults and programs for our youngest children.

Doing Our Part for Early Learning

Two such programs are Smart Memphis and Shelby County Books from Birth. Smart Memphis is a coalition of nonprofit groups, businesses, schools, and government agencies, offering an array of programs aimed at improving literacy in our region, with a strong emphasis on adult literacy.

Books From Birth approaches literacy from the other end of the spectrum, giving children a new (age appropriate) book every month from birth to their fifth birthday.

Research clearly shows that literacy is shaped early, long before children enter kindergarten, and that our children’s early years are an unparalleled opportunity to expand their vocabularies and strengthen critical pre-literacy skills that develop long before a child can actually read or write.

Early Brain Development: An Opportunity Too Good To Pass Up

During children’s first three years of life, their rapidly developing brains are primed to receive new information. There is no better time to invest in language development and literacy. Whether we are parents, grandparents, caretakers, neighborhood leaders, Sunday school teachers, or friends, we should encourage literacy development among children and their families in our lives and spheres of influence.

The good news is that we can do this without spending a dime by encouraging parents with young children to sign up for Shelby County Books From Birth. This free program is based on a simple premise – by providing families with reading resources, they can help parents put their child on a pathway to success in school and life.

Our 2012 study of Books From Birth concluded that at kindergarten entry, reading readiness scores are 10% higher among children who participate in the program. Books from Birth has a measurable and positive effect on reading readiness scores for children in Shelby County, preparing them for success in the classroom and beyond.

It may seem ironic, but it is no less true: in a digital world characterized by texts, emails, and online games, books have never been more important than they are today. They remain the best tools for early learning, literacy, and school readiness, and that’s why there is no goal more important for Memphis and Shelby County’s future than to be a community of readers.