David and Elise Voltmer read a book at Millhopper Branch Library in Gainesville. (Grace Banahan/WUFT News)

Book Distribution Program Could Combat Florida’s Literacy Shortcomings

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When Dana Trabulsy was a kid, she looked forward to getting her Highlights magazine in the mail. 

She was excited to have something that was just for her. All month long, she would read and reread the stories and go over the puzzles multiple times.

She didn’t realize at the time the effect it would have. In retrospect, she realized, her parents’ decision to get her a magazine subscription incited something greater: It got her excited about reading.

Now, in her capacity as a freshman state legislator in the Florida House of Representatives, Rep. Trabulsy wants children to be excited about reading and writing as well.

On Feb. 4, her bill, Home Book Delivery for Elementary Students (HB 3), appeared before the Early Learning and Elementary Education Subcommittee, created in 2020 to help improve literacy levels in the state’s youngest students. The bill advanced with a 18-0 vote, and it awaits a hearing in the PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee.

The bill creates the New Worlds Reading Initiative, which would be Florida’s first statewide book distribution program. If passed, it would give school districts the ability to opt in to the initiative and provide books monthly at no cost to K-5 students who are reading below grade level. The free books would be sent out by October, with the Department of Education or a third-party nonprofit covering half the cost and school districts that opt in raising the other half.

Florida faces a literacy problem that predates the pandemic. Standardized test results from 2019 show that 43% of third graders statewide are reading below grade level. 

In Alachua County, 57% of kindergarten students are not “ready” for kindergarten based on their literacy skills, according to the 2019 Florida Kindergarten Readiness Screener. Only 53% of kindergarteners statewide in 2018 and 2019 are academically ready for kindergarten. 

Other states are also using book distribution programs as a way to encourage reading proficiency in elementary-age students. 

In October, Tennessee’s Department of Education and the Governor’s Early Literacy Foundation launched a book delivery program to distribute 580,000 books to 75 school districts within the state.

GELF communications manager Claire Jones said the program was designed to combat declining reading proficiency levels.

“In Tennessee, only 34% of third graders are reading proficient, and that number is expected to drop as a result of school closures,” Jones said.

The learning loss attributed to the pandemic, dubbed the “COVID slide,” is an extension of the learning loss that occurs when students are out of the classroom for the summer.

Connecticut has also used a book distribution program to combat the COVID slide. At the start of the pandemic, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont created a Learn From Home Task Force to bridge the equity gap within remote learning. With the assistance of private donors, the state distributed over 200,000 grade-level book packs to elementary students.

Access to early literacy resources is inequitable across socio-economic backgrounds, a disparity that is only heightened by school closures.

Elizabeth Hadley, an assistant professor of literacy studies at USF, said a book distribution program in Florida could have the greatest impact on children from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

“Under-resourced families don’t have physical materials,” Hadley said. “Putting books in the home is one way to give them access to literary materials.”

According to Hadley, having books in the home serves as an environmental cue to engage in shared book-reading and foster a home literacy environment.

Research from USF’s Literacy Hub says the home literacy environment predicts a child’s success in school, and having books in the home increases the number of literacy-focused interactions between caregivers and children.

Facilitating a home literacy environment is not a priority for every family in Florida. When the bill appeared before the committee, Rep. Patricia Williams asked how struggling families will benefit from the initiative. 

“Do we have anything in place if I’m a parent and I can’t read,” Williams said. “How will I be able to help my child?” 

According to the bill text, parents will have access to interactive resources supplied by a school administrator to assist and engage with their child’s literacy skills.

Still, low-income families are at a disadvantage, with only 48% of children who live in poverty being academically ready for kindergarten, compared to 75% of children from moderate or high income backgrounds.

Research shows that book distribution programs had about the same impact on vocabulary as an average year of state-funded Pre-K. Hadley attributes this to the sophisticated vocabulary and advanced language in books.

“The everyday conversations we have aren’t as complex as what is written in books,” Hadley said. 

She said early language and literacy skills are the foundation for later reading proficiency. Rep. Trabulsy also suggested that a book distribution program could have long-term effects outside the classroom.

“A child’s ability to read is critical to his or her success, not only in school, but in life,” she said.

About Grace Banahan

Grace is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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