Academic journal article The Future of Children

The Role of Out-of-School Factors in the Literacy Problem

Academic journal article The Future of Children

The Role of Out-of-School Factors in the Literacy Problem

Article excerpt

American children enter school with substantial disparities in literacy skills, and for some groups of children the disparities widen as they progress in school. Particularly notable at school entry are gaps by socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity, and immigrant status. Because these gaps exist before school entry, the explanation for them must rest with conditions outside of schools--conditions, that is, in the children's families and communities. As children move through school, such out-of-school factors may continue to influence their progress in literacy, by affecting both learning gains during the school year and learning gains or losses during the summer, when they are not in school.

In this article, I consider the out-of-school factors that influence disparities in literacy at school entry and examine how those and other out-of-school factors may contribute to the widening of these gaps for some groups thereafter. Because the explanations for early gaps in literacy and for their subsequent evolution may vary depending on the particular group considered, I discuss specific at-risk groups separately.

What Is the Problem?

The literacy problem in the United States is not new. For decades researchers have documented gaps in literacy or literacy-related skills that appear even before children begin school and that in many instances widen thereafter. (1) In 1998 a committee convened by the National Academy of Sciences produced a landmark volume on Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children. (2) In that study, committee chair Catherine Snow and co-editors Susan Burns and Peg Griffin described the demographics of reading difficulties, noting that children from poor families, black and Hispanic children, and children attending urban schools were all at elevated risk of poor reading outcomes.

In their article in this issue Sean Reardon, Rachel Valentino, and Kenneth Shores take a look at disparities in literacy today and provide ample evidence that literacy gaps remain a problem in the United States. Consistent with earlier research, they document sizable gaps between students of high and low socioeconomic status; between black, Hispanic, and white students; and between children of immigrants and children of native-born parents. (3) The gaps are present at school entry and tend to widen during the school years for some groups (children of low socioeconomic status and black children) but not for others (Hispanic children).

Explaining Literacy Skill Gaps at School Entry and Their Evolution Thereafter

Early child development, including growth in early literacy, occurs in the context of tremendous developmental opportunities and risks. Over the past few decades, findings from neuroscience have illuminated the important role of early experiences and gene-environment interactions in shaping cognitive, social, and emotional development, and have pointed to the potentially toxic effects on development of early adverse experiences and stress. (4) The quality and nature of experiences in early childhood lay the groundwork for early literacy development and may also set the stage for potential problems. To the extent that some groups of children are more likely than their peers to experience challenging early environments and less-than-optimal early parenting, they are at risk for problems in literacy as well as in other domains.

To identify specific factors that are associated with problems in early literacy, it is important to understand the process of literacy development. The article in this issue by Nell Duke and Meghan Block provides insights into this process, as does the already noted 1998 National Academy of Sciences volume, Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children, which emphasizes how early in childhood the foundation for literacy is laid and stresses parents' role in promoting early literacy. (5)

Indeed, a key factor in early literacy is the role of parents. …

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