A Leg Up on Reading in Rural America

An innovative program works with isolated communities to introduce new opportunities for children to read.

February 21, 2017

Once upon a time, there were two families: a city family and a rural family. The city parents loved to visit their local library and read to their children, who soon learned to read on their own. The rural family had no nearby library and the children had to wait until they were old enough to go to school to learn to read.

This simple fable reflects a sobering reality: Many poor rural areas across the United States lack the resources needed to support childhood literacy.

“One of the biggest challenges in these communities is simply the availability of books for children,” explains Helena Duch, assistant professor of Population and Family Health. “Many families in rural areas don’t have a library, or if they do, it’s small, with odd hours or a long drive away.”

In a recent talk, Duch and colleagues described a novel program developed by Save the Children and Reach Out and Read to boost childhood literacy in remote communities. While most literacy efforts involve classroom-based programs and teaching students, this program takes a population-based approach, remaking the larger community environment to encourage young people and families to read.

The program starts by recruiting community leaders and parents to seed their towns with books. They partner with local businesses and organizations to build Little Free Libraries, small outdoor sheds stocked with books for lending, and indoor Reading Corners for individual and group readings. Another popular strategy called StoryWalks displays children’s stories along a trail, inviting families to walk and read together.

In an evaluation of the program for Save the Children, Duch worked with Maria Martí, a postdoctoral research scientist, and Kelsey Repka, MPH ’15), staff research associate, to interview and survey community literacy managers and community members in 16 communities across four states. Not surprisingly, they reported many more children’s books available—more importantly, the books are being used and are making their way into homes.

Nearly everyone the Mailman team interviewed said the program increased community interest in literacy. It’s too soon to tell whether rates of childhood literacy are improving in these communities, but the stakes are high: Not only do low literacy rates constrict a child’s life opportunities for education and employment, research shows low literacy rates raise risk for chronic disease later in life.

Thankfully, the program’s mobilization of community resources positions it for sustainability—time needed to see the needle move on childhood literacy. Martí quoted a community leader in South Carolina: “We live in a society that wants instant gratification. Some things just take a while.”

Participants said the program brought their communities together, helping them forge new connections with neighbors—especially around StoryWalks. In a Colorado town, local organizations sponsored one such project and tapped student volunteers at an area junior college to make the displays.

The most successful programs harnessed local champions for energy, ideas, and community connections. The owner of a South Carolina barbershop not only offers books to her young customers, many who come for free haircuts on Tuesdays, she encourages them to complete simple book reports that enter them into a raffle for a $50 prize.

“These aren’t just people who are telling us how important literacy is,” said Repka. “These are people taking the next step, saying ‘we know what’s important, here’s what we’re going to do to support our kids and our families.’”