Read About the Need for Literacy

Need Assessment


In 1995, Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley published a study nicknamed the “30 Million Word Gap,” which concluded that by the age of 3, children in poverty have heard 30 million fewer words spoken to them directly than their more affluent peers and that parents were key to a child’s language acquisition. Hart and Risley stated that they “observed 42 children grow like their parents in stature and activity levels, in vocabulary resources, and in language and interaction styles. Despite the considerable range in vocabulary size among the children, 86 percent to 98 percent of the words recorded in each child’s vocabulary consisted of words also recorded in their parents’ vocabularies. By the age of 34-36 months, the children were also talking and using numbers of different words very similar to the averages of their parents.” (


Recent studies from several researchers have corroborated the ’95 observations of Hart and Risley. For example, Anne Fernald, a Stanford associate professor of psychology conducted an experiment designed to investigate children's vocabulary and language processing speed. Fernald observed 20 children, 18 months old, who lived near the Stanford campus, and tested how quickly and accurately they identified objects based on simple verbal cues. Follow-up tests six months later measured how these skills developed. She compared the group to others who lived north of the affluent and advantaged San Francisco Bay area. Fernald concluded that the intellectual processing deficit occurs as early as 18 months of age.  (


Studies like these emphasize the importance of reaching parents long before their children are in pre-school or kindergarten. Parents need encouragement to read and talk to their children and information about how to do this in a developmentally appropriate and effective way. 

Another group of studies has shown that there is limited access to books in low income neighborhoods.  In middle income neighborhoods, the ratio of books per child is 13 to 1. In low-income neighborhoods, the ratio is 1 age-appropriate book per 300 children.  (  

Access to a wide variety of reading materials is essential if a child is to grow and develop into a strong reader and an independent learner. By placing books in children’s hands, we can improve the literacy skills of young children, their older siblings, and even their parents.

Reading for fun has been shown to have a positive relationship to performance on reading scores. 87% of students, who report reading for fun as little as 1 time per month, perform at the proficient level.  Students, who never or hardly ever read for fun, perform at the most basic level on standardized tests. Students, who read for fun daily, perform at the highest levels.  (


Our understanding of the link between early literacy and childhood health is growing. In the past, people may have viewed children’s books as merely entertaining “nice to haves,” but we now know that high quality books that are crafted with an awareness of child development provide parents and caregivers with the age-appropriate words to say and actually have an impact on brain development and overall health. 


In a June 2014 article from the journal Pediatrics, the Council of Early Childhood released a new policy statement emphasizing the role of pediatricians in literacy. “Reading regularly with young children stimulates optimal patterns of brain development and strengthens parent-child relationships at a critical time in child development, which, in turn, builds language, literacy, and social-emotional skills that last a lifetime. Pediatric providers have a unique opportunity to encourage parents to engage in this important and enjoyable activity with their children beginning in infancy.”


Health Needs and Education Needs Overlap


Children need to be physically healthy to thrive intellectually and they need to be literate to stay as fit and healthy as possible. At the same time literacy rates among low-income children are of concern, there is a great need for addressing childhood obesity and diabetes through nutrition education.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years.  ( Their guidelines for responding to the crisis include health education and collaboration with community organizations. 





SMART Family Literacy and its partners are prioritizing the following problems with their programs:  

  • Literacy for Children and Parent/Caregiver Education – Children are educationally at risk when they don’t have sufficient access to age appropriate books in their homes. Parents/caregivers need education about the importance of reading with very young children to enhance school readiness and later academic success; they need more information about choosing books and activities that are developmentally appropriate.


  • Health for Children – Childhood obesity and diabetes place children at risk for long term health problems. Children and their families need improved access to fresh produce. Inadequate access occurs for several reasons, including the location of markets and gardens in proximity to residences, the cost of fresh produce, and the need for education about what produce to eat and how to store and prepare it.