Poverty Can Jeopardize the Development of Literacy and Early Reading Habits

Early childhood brain development takes place across a wide range of social, emotional and cognitive dimensions. One key area of development occurs in terms of language and literacy. Language and literacy encompasses a child’s ability to express their wants and needs, understand a growing vocabulary, and establishes the foundation for developing comfort with reading. Early reading practices can be established very early in life. Early reading, in turn, gives a child a leg up on academic success.

Unfortunately, not all children have high quality early childhood literacy experiences. Researchers have found that while there are more than a dozen books per child in middle-income neighborhoods, in low-income neighborhoods the ratio is closer to one book for every three hundred children.1 Compounding these differences, low-income families engage in much less conversation and use smaller vocabularies when talking with their children. The result is that there are stark differences in the early exposure to reading of different groups of children. In low-income families, time as well as money are scarce, and books may be considered a costly luxury.

In turn, children from low-income families are further disadvantaged when it comes to early exposure to reading. This, in turn, creates massive reading readiness gaps between even the youngest children. By age three, children from wealthier families have typically heard 30 million more words than children from low-income families.2 When they reach school, children from low-income families have one-fourth the vocabulary of children from wealthier homes.3 By the time children from low-income families enter kindergarten, they are 12-14 months below national norms in language and pre-reading skills.

Too often, gaps in reading readiness and language development become academic achievement gaps. While half of middle-income children in 4th grade are considered proficient, closer to 17% of low-income 4th graders earn proficient mark.4 Early reading skills predict general academic performance, and early deficits reduce the likelihood of catching up later on.5

Fortunately, there are multiple national organizations across the United States working to increase the access of low-income families to books. These organizations work to get books into the hands of needy children, and are working to instill early reading habits at a young age. For additional information on these organizations, please click the links below.


Neuman, Susan B. and David K. Dickinson, ed. Handbook of Early Literacy Research, Volume 2. New York, NY: 2006.

Hart, B., and Risley, T.R. (2003). “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap.” American Educator, 27(1), pp. 4–9.

Spiegel, Alix. (2011). "Closing The Achievement Gap With Baby Talk." NPR.org Accessed 4 September 2012. Available here.

Annie E. Casey Foundation. (2010). "EARLY WARNING! Why Reading By The End of Third Grade Matters." Available here.

Whitehurst, J., and Lonigan, C. (1998). Child Development and Emergent Literacy. Child Development, Vol. 69, No. 3 (Jun., 1998), pp. 848-872. Available here.