On Tuesday the D.C. City Council introduced Councilman Charles Allen’s “Books from Birth” proposal, which aims to send one book each month to District children under the age of 5.
The plan, which has gained unanimous support from the council, focuses on the D.C. Public Library system by building off of existing programming, such as the Sing, Talk, and Read program. STAR has been accessed by over 14,000 people online since its launch in 2013 and has hosted 64 workshops with 925 attendees since last October, according to George Williams, Media Relations Manager for the DCPL.
According to Associate Professor Rachel Barr of the Department of Psychology, interacting with children is essential , whether it is reading a book, telling a story, or just talking to them at the bus stop. “It doesn’t have to be book reading per se,” she said. “Conversational talk is the most important.”
Connecting the initiative to the library is also, according to Allen, intended to allow adults with low literacy to take full advantage of the program. “In the District, like in a lot of places, there are plenty of adults who have low literacy and if you have low literacy, going to the library is a fairly intimidating thing to do,” said Allen. “We can create connections for those adults to the programs around adult literacy and adult training that help them be able to carry that message and start reading to their child.”
This adult training has proven effective elsewhere. Barr pointed to the 30 Million Word Gap project in Providence, Rhode Island, in which adults were given feedback on their levels of child-directed talk. “When given this feedback, [parents] are very responsive and they do increase their amount of child-directed talk,” Barr said. “If parents have information about child-directed talk, they increase their child-directed talk.”
The plan will also send materials out with the books that can be tailored to specific neighborhoods and library branches, including information on upcoming events, group reading times, and meeting different language needs. “Our library can be the vehicle through which there is messaging,” said Allen. This messaging is critical, according to Barr. “It’s not about giving children books to teach them to read, it’s about speaking and communicating with children so they know how to use language,” she said.
This is the first initiative launched by Allen who made education a priority in his campaign. “When you look at where we are as a district, more than half of the kids in third grade are not reading at a proficient level,” said Allen. “If we only wait until third grade when we find this big achievement gap in the classroom … we’re really chasing our tails.”
The negative effects of this word gap have been shown to compound over time, and children with less word exposure have significantly smaller vocabularies, according to Barr. “It’s harder for them to express their emotions and it’s harder for them to acclimate to the school at the time of entry,” said Barr. “If you start out with a gap at the age of 3, it’s much harder to make up that gap.”
Justin Fang (SFS ‘17) has volunteered in Ward 7 schools and noticed some of the problems Allen mentioned, but thinks there is more to the problem than a lack of books available. “Many of the children I had a chance to interact with have the requisite resources, but lack the support and reassurance that they are as capable as any other student,” wrote Fang in an email to the Voice. “It is a good first step, but we have to seriously reconsider the mentality behind education for children in D.C.”
Based on the results of a now decade-long program of the same goals in Tennessee, the program cost per child should be around $35 per year, bringing the total cost to around $1.2 million. “I think that’s a reasonable investment to make in early childhood literacy and I think you’ll see that pay its dividends in the classroom a few years later,” said Allen. He hopes that the DCPL can build off of its existing relationships with publishing houses to achieve economies of scale. The bill is also written so that the library can accept donations or sponsorships for the program.
At this time many specifics remain to be hammered out and, realistically, the proposal would not be launched until next year. Allen suggested the program start with newborns to children age 3 and then expand. “I want [the program] to grow at a pace that makes sense,” said Allen.
The full support of the council gives the proposal a necessary push forward. “Getting everyone to co-introduce it is a real sign of strength,” said Allen. “I would like to have some sense of urgency around moving it forward quickly.”