With her wide smile and eager expression, Oakland 3rd-grader Weiying Wu looked a bit like a princess herself earlier this week as she pored over her new book titled “Real Princess Diaries,” thanks to a multistate effort to get books into the hands of low-income children who come from homes where books are often in short supply.
In an age when older children, especially, are drifting away from reading the old-fashioned way, Weiying is carrying on a time-honored practice of reading an actual book. In this case, the book is not one that belongs to the school to be read as part of a class exercise or assignment, but rather to take home and read on her own.
“I wanted to learn about the different kinds of princesses,” she said, showing pages about Marie Antoinette, Queen Victoria and Princess Diana. “I like having my own books because sometimes when you borrow books you have to return them before you’re finished. I like to read books again and again.”
She got the book that day when representatives of Book Trust, a nonprofit Denver-based organization working with districts in 18 states, including four in California, came to Bella Vista Elementary to hand out books about 300 students had selected from the Scholastic book catalog. In addition to Oakland, the other California districts are San Jose Unified, Ravenswood City and Redwood City, all south of San Francisco.
Children in participating districts in kindergarten through 3rd grade, and sometimes in 4th and 5th grade, get to pick out $7 worth of Scholastic books monthly. Book Trust, which is funded by private foundations and individual donations, and the school districts share the costs.
Book Trust Executive Director Amy Friedman said her organization is helping to raise reading levels by purchasing books that children have chosen themselves, and which they can keep. “For us, it’s an equity issue,” she said. “And it’s the choice piece that’s key. If kids are given books they pick out, which they actually want to read, they’re more likely to become regular readers.”
According to reports from 2,400 teachers who participate in the Book Trust program, the proportion of students reading at grade level increased from an average of 31 percent at the beginning of the school year to 59 percent by the end of the school year after receiving free books through Book Trust.
Sue Schooling, Weiying’s teacher, said her students have made a significant leap in reading skills since the beginning of the school year when the Book Trust program started.
“There’s an excitement when the catalog comes, when the books arrive,” said Schooling, who has been a teacher for 28 years. “The kids get to know new authors. They even go to the library and ask for the authors they like.”
She said that many children in her classroom come from families that don’t have a lot of books around the house or spend much time reading – factors that can contribute to low-income children having lower reading scores than their middle- or high-income peers, according to the National Education Association.
Schooling said most of her students were reading well below their grade level at the beginning of the school year, but now most have achieved the literacy benchmark and several have surpassed it. The benchmark is based on district standards for 3rd graders – how many words per minute they can read and how well they understand the content. She credits the gains at least in part to the boost students received through Book Trust.
To further encourage her students, Schooling bought them each a cardboard book box from Ikea so they can set up their own libraries at home and their books don’t end up under the bed or lost, she said.
“A lot of my kids have parents who don’t speak English at home, or don’t have books at home at all, so being able to let the kids pick their own books, build their own libraries, is just huge,” she said.
Book Trust focuses its efforts on low-income children because that is where putting a book in the hands of a child is likely to have the biggest impact. Rhianna Casesa, assistant professor of literacy at Sonoma State University, said how well children read is strongly associated with their socioeconomic background.
“Reading is not a priority if you’re focused on feeding your family or busy working multiple jobs,” she said. “And some immigrants are unwilling to get library cards out of fear. So for kids just learning to read, that can be a barrier.”
Allowing children to choose their own books is crucial, she said. They can pick books at their own reading levels, on subjects they find interesting, and then keep the books to re-read or swap with friends. Sometimes teachers or parents will encourage children to read books that are too advanced or not on topics the kids enjoy, and over time that can turn kids off to reading, she said.
Books that are culturally relevant are also important, she said.
Another key aspect of the Book Trust program is that teachers give students time in class to read their new books. For children who have big families, live in small homes or have responsibilities outside school, quiet time to read can be a luxury, Friedman said.
“Reading is like riding a bike. The more you practice, the better you get,” she said. “That’s why time spent reading in the classroom is so important. Kids might not have any other place to do it.”
Cynthia Greenleaf, co-director of the WestEd Strategic Literacy Initiative, which conducts research and professional development on literacy, agreed.
“Students need well-stocked classrooms and school libraries and time in school to read, to make up for time they miss outside of school,” she wrote in an email. “And when philanthropic organizations support book giveaways, sponsor book clubs, and provide spaces outside of school for students to gather to read and write about their interests, students gain enthusiasm and make progress in literacy.”
Studies are mixed on whether kids generally are reading less than they used to. A 2016 Scholastic survey of 2,718 parents and children found that the rate at which kids read for fun has remained steady since 2010: 58 percent of children ages 6 to 17 say they enjoy reading for fun, compared with 60 percent in 2010. But the survey shows a decline in kids’ reading as they become teenagers. Sixty-five percent of 6- to 8-year-olds say they enjoy reading, while only 54 percent of 15- to 17-year-olds do.
But research by Common Sense Media in 2014 found that 45 percent of 17-year-olds read books for fun only once or twice a year, in part due to distractions such as video games and social media. By contrast, in 1984, 64 percent of 17-year-olds said they read books for fun once a week or more.
Nonetheless, sales of children’s and young-adult books remain strong, according to the Association of American Publishers. In 2015, books (including e-books) aimed at readers ages 18 and under were a $4.27 billion business. Harry Potter books still sell millions of copies annually.
But the key, say Book Trust representatives, is to make sure that all children, including those from low-income backgrounds, have a chance to read at a young age as a fun activity, not just as a class exercise. Bella Vista Elementary 3rd-grader Josephine Baker said she keeps the books she gets courtesy of the Book Trust program in her library at home so she can re-read them – especially her favorite, “Ghosts” by Raina Telgemeier – and then give them to her little sister.
“When I’m done with them, and my sister is done with them, I want to donate them,” she said. “I think everyone should have a home library.”