Low-income children hear roughly 30 million fewer distinct words than their peers by the time they’re three years old. This so-called “word gap” keeps them behind for years, hampering their success at school and at work. The antidote, though, seems simple enough: Research shows that simply reading with parents has a significant positive impact on literacy and cognitive skills even years later—no matter a parent’s education, income or race.
But what happens if the parents aren’t there to read to their children?
A 2009-2010 study found that more than 50,000 children in New York were impacted by the incarceration of a parent or caregiver. The New York Public Library is trying to bridge the word gap for those children, through an innovative program in city prisons—and there are some initial forays into a similar program here.
Inspired by similar religious-based initiatives out west, the NYPL launched Daddy & Me five years ago as a sort of parenting class behind bars, to educate imprisoned fathers about the importance of early childhood literacy and on ways to best parent from afar. The three- or four-session course includes lessons about the importance of early literacy, accompanied by images of brain scans and synaptic densities in healthy and neglected children. Homework involves listing their parental strengths and weaknesses. It’s only in the final two sessions that dads (or in the case of the newly added Mommy & Me, moms) actually select a book and record a reading. The book and the recording are then given to the children during a family day, both to approximate the classic bedtime story routine and also in an attempt to introduce new words to the child.
Tape-recorded speech isn’t as important to bridging the word gap as interactive conversations but Sarah Ball, Correctional Library Services manager, says the unique language used when reading an imaginative book has its own value.
“How often do you talk about a giraffe wearing a top hat? Even just those words coming into your vocabulary, that’s where reading pushes it to the next level,” she says. The imaginative aspect of reading has a scientifically recognized value by encouraging kids to picture what they’re hearing in their “mind’s eye.” Recent studies showed that just listening to a story read out loud activates the parietal-temporal-occipital association cortex—the area of the brain responsible for multisensory integration.
“Reading to your children is this really intimate thing. It actually does something, scientifically in their brains, to hear their parents’ voice,” says Sarah Ball, Correctional Library Services manager.
Funding for the program comes from a long-running grant from the New York State Department of Education to the Library’s Correctional Services, just a small portion of which goes to pay the salary of one part-time staffer to run Daddy & Me and cover the nominal costs of goodie bag materials, photocopying, mailing and supplies. While it’s hard to track the quantitative impact of such a focused and relatively new initiative, Ball says that, “the dads absolutely love it,” and they have frequent requests to run the program not just for dads and moms, but other relatives as well—grandmothers, aunts, and other caregivers who are anxious for a connection to the kids’ lives that can transcend their incarceration.
Philadelphia certainly has enough of both incarcerated parents and low literacy rates to benefit from a similar program. In Pennsylvania, 65 percent of male inmates and 72 percent of female inmates leave children on the outside. Meanwhile, only 40 percent of 3rd graders in Philly were proficient or above proficient at reading—compared to 70 percent state-wide. In 2013, Philadelphia reading scores for 4th graders lagged way behind both national averages and major city averages (including New York). And with 66 percent of kids in the city not participating in some form of high-quality pre-K, the emphasis on early childhood literacy has to come from the family.
There is already some encouraging work being done to advocate for children with incarcerated parents in the city. Just a few years ago, the Pennsylvania State Prison Society chaired a statewide committee that produced a lengthy report on the matter. The Effects Of Parental Incarceration: Needs And Responsive Services detailed the existing infrastructure and the ways in which it fails children. And one existing small program has started a similar initiative to bridge the gap between kids and their parents behind bars. Messages From Mom and Dad, a coalition of sororities and other charitable organizations, has been sending volunteers to four different jails in the city since 2005 to videotape inmates reading a book and offering messages of love for their children. Just as with Daddy & Me, donated books are sent to the homes of the children along with the tapes. But Messages does not offer parenting classes, or interact with parents much beyond the camera. And it is still too small-scale to make a real difference in the lives of many Philly children.
“When a child is introduced to books by their parents in an excited, enthusiastic, and loving way, the child is able to engage with books in a positive memory rather than a memory of being nervous about school,” Ball says of Daddy & Me’s impact on lifelong literacy. “Reading to your children is this really intimate thing: at the end of day, curling up with them in bed and reading to them. Unfortunately incarcerated parents can’t do that. But to have the parents’ voice there, for the kids, it’s really meaningful still. It actually does something, scientifically in their brains, to hear their parents’ voice.”Header photo courtesy ayoub.reem / Flickr