Photo of two parents reading a book with their young children.

Photography by Rob and Julia Campbell/Stocksy

Can books break the cycle of poverty?

Many Canadian children struggle to read and write—here’s how community groups in the GTA are helping

When you read a bedtime story to your children, you probably don’t stop to consider how Good Night Moon could be vital to their success later in life. Studies show that being read to as a preschooler is associated with higher reading comprehension levels at age seven. And a strong foundation in literacy has lifelong benefits. A 2012 survey on adult literacy rates reported that 48 percent of Canadian adults have inadequate literacy skills and that this can “hurt individuals’ potential for landing jobs and promotions.” But not all kids get bedtime stories.

Pinpointing the problem
In a low-income home, children might not have access to books or reading material. Or they might attend under-resourced daycares or schools. Single parents or those with precarious employment may be working multiple jobs and have less time to spend at home with their children.

While tax dollars are poured into education, the system is still failing many children, says Camesha Cox, managing director of The Reading Partnership. “There is no system or protocol in place to ensure that those learning gaps are addressed, and you’re caught up,” says Cox. That’s where community-based ‘literacy interventions’ come in.

Getting parents involved
A key component to making this work is involving parents, which is why The Reading Partnership also teaches parents how to teach their children to read. The program, to date, has worked with hundreds of families in the Toronto neighbourhood of Kingston Galloway Orton Park (KGO). The results are encouraging. In just 12 weeks, children progress from not knowing their letter sounds to being able to read and answer comprehension questions.

The program was piloted for the first time in a school where about 50 percent of the children in every Grade 3 class were struggling to meet the provincial standard for reading. “The teachers in the school have jumped at the opportunity to support this program,” says Cox. And so far, they’ve seen a promising improvement in attitudes toward reading: They report that their students are more excited and focused in class.

“I think the only way you can break intergenerational poverty is by giving children opportunities to read.”

Finding community supports
EarlyON Child and Family Centres also provide free family programs to parents and their children (up to six years of age) in communities across Ontario, including a library program that allows families to take home books.

“I think the only way you can break intergenerational poverty is by giving children opportunities to read,” says Cynthia Pommells, family resource program manager for EarlyON programs with the Delta Family Resource Centre. “When you improve their reading ability, it’s a way of giving them an education and an opportunity to build better lives as they get older.”

The EarlyON programs also work with parents who either lack literacy skills themselves or aren’t able to put an emphasis on reading at home. “The changes can happen when parents become interested—where you’re engaging the parents and then letting them know why we need to do this,” says Pommells.

The benefits of books
Literacy allows children to move onto post-secondary education and get good jobs, says Cox. But it’s not the only benefit. When she was young, books allowed her to ‘travel,’ despite the fact her family couldn’t afford trips.

“I was able to imagine and experience a world outside of my everyday lived experiences through the books I was reading,” she says. “A child in poverty can experience a world outside of their own through books.”

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