The Star Wars Dissection Special Edition – Children’s Literacy


Hello everyone, it’s Andrew Halliday with a special edition of The Star Wars Dissection.  As part of EUCantina.net’s Summer for Children’s Literacy (SCL), I’d like to explore issues surrounding youth literacy and then briefly discuss some great Star Wars books for kids. A lot of my statistics will come from the Reading Is Fundamental (RIF) group, which the SCL is benefiting, but I also use stats from other organizations and companies from the US and Canada. I’ve linked all sources of information below, so that readers may check things out for themselves.
  

Literacy, which is defined as the ability to read and write, is one of the most important traits a person can have. It has been shown that children who have good literacy skills do better in school overall, have better self-images, and live healthier lives overall. Children without these skills are often viewed as “problems”. Literacy (or a lack of it) has a large impact over time; children who do not develop good literacy skills often end up with poor job prospects and a tendency towards anti-social behavior. It is therefore alarming that experts estimate that nearly 40% of Grade 4 students in the U.S. are not proficient at basic reading. This figure is highest among families below the poverty line, those learning English as a second language, and numerous ethnic minorities.

Grade 4 is considered the watershed line. If a child cannot read properly in Grade 4 (age 9-10), they have a 78% chance of not being able to catch up. Furthermore, 2/3 of children who cannot read by the end of Grade 4 will end up on welfare or in jail (my apologies; that statistic came linked, and there’s no good way to separate the two items). Combined with the statistic in the previous paragraph (40% of Grade 4 students being not proficient), that’s alarming. Based on current demographic estimates (where roughly 20% of Americans are between the ages of 0 and 14; we’ll assume more-or-less equally distributed among those 15 ages), there are almost 4.2 million Grade 4 students out there. If those statistics hold true, that’s approximately 1.1 million Americans in jail or on welfare per year.

Dr. Susan Neuman of the University of Michigan’s Center for Improvement of Early Reading Achievement has said that “Access to books and educational material is the single biggest barrier to literacy development in the United States and Beyond.” It is estimated that 2/3 of poor families do not have a single book in the home. Some estimates suggest that the lowest-income neighborhoods in North America have one book for every 300 children, as opposed to middle-class families, which average 13 books per child. This is coupled by the closure of school and public libraries in these difficult economic times. Studies show that 80% of preschools and after-school programs do not have age-appropriate books for kids to access. Without access to reading materials, children cannot progress in their literacy education. A lack of reading material in the home could result from parents with poor literacy; it has been shown that increased literacy levels among parents has a pronounced effect on children’s ability to read. Simple reading-based activities in the home at pre-school ages lead to immensely better readers. Indeed, up to 80% of kids who are read to several times a day at home could be able to read independently by the time they enter kindergarten. But it all has to start with access to books in the home.
 
Illiteracy figures are highest among those below the poverty line. Reading achievement is closely linked to vocabulary, and by age 3, children from wealthier families have heard 30 million more words than their lower-income counterparts. This is likely linked to the stats above; lower income families have less access to books, or have suffered from literacy difficulties in their own childhoods and were unable to recover, and so are less likely to read to their children. By the time a low-income child enters kintergarten, s/he is approximately 12-14 months behind national norms in reading and language development.
 
Another group for whom the statistics are high is ethnic minorities and those who do not speak English as a first language. One major group studied under this is Hispanics. Roughly one fifth of schoolchildren in the U.S. are Hispanic, but they are disproportionately located in poverty-stricken schools (noting that 28% of Hispanics are below the poverty line, as opposed to only 16% of non-Hispanics). They therefore tend to suffer from a lack of access to books, which in turn contributes to poor literacy skills. This greatly hampers all subsequent steps, including access to jobs, post-secondary education, and citizenship.  
 
Poor literacy is also directly linked to anti-social behavior and crime. As I said above, 2/3 of Grade 4 students who cannot read will end up in jail or on welfare. Illiterate youth are more likely to drop out of high school, leading to poor job prospects. A high school dropout will earn significantly less money than a high school graduate, and even if they do not go on welfare, they will still contribute significantly less to society (in that, as taxation is based on percentages, those that earn less pay fewer dollars into government coiffers). Furthermore, there are alarming statistics like 85% of kids in the juvenile prison system and 60% of adults in jail are functionally illiterate. Also, 78% of juvenile criminals are high school dropouts. The Department of Justice has stated that “the link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure.” This is also demonstrated by its moderate reversibility. Illiterate inmates who receive literacy help while in prison are significantly less likely to reoffend. 
 
A lack of literacy skills has also been linked to health problems. Several sources have shown that poor literacy costs the U.S. government $73 million in health funds. This can be from any number of literacy-based factors, not the least of which is difficulty reading and interpreting medication instructions, which could lead to problems of prescription drug addiction, overdose, child poisoning, or insufficient dose for the drug to have an effect. Furthermore, those without sufficient literacy skills have a 50% higher chance of dying over the course of a  five-year period. Most of this higher chance of death comes from greater incidence of cardiovascular disease (possibly stemming from poor nutrition education and an inability to understand food labels), but I imagine the tendency towards anti-social behavior might factor in as well.

This short overlook of literacy problems among youth is startling, and really only shows part of the picture. But what we see is clear: poor literacy skills at youth can be problematic, and it is a difficult situation to escape.

But not all hope is lost. Programs like Reading Is Fundamental exist all over the world. With enough funding, these programs offer the means to help children read at the highest possible level. Indeed, through the long-term benefits that childhood literacy provides, it has been shown that money invested in literacy intervention programs can be returned sevenfold. Therefore, I urge EUCantina.net readers to donate to groups such as Reading Is Fundamental, as part of our Summer for Children’s Literacy. You can donate to RIF directly through EUCantina at this link.

For parents interested in getting their kids into reading, I note that there are numerous Star Wars book titles that are accessible. It has been shown that kids who like reading will pick up books that interest them, and a lot of kids are interested in Star Wars. Later this summer, EUCantina.net will feature a look at what Star Wars titles for youth exist out there.

Sources:

Reading is Fundamental, www.rif.org
ABC Life Literacy Canada, http://abclifeliteracy.ca/
National Education Association, http://www.nea.org/grants/13662.htm
National Center for Family Literacy, http://www.famlit.org/

About the Author

Andrew Halliday contributes to EUCantina as a writer. He writes our column "The Star Wars Dissection," published every second Monday, and also reviews episodes of The Clone Wars television show. He began writing in 2010, sending letters to the SoloSound.net podcast The EU Review, using mathematics to look at certain trends in Star Wars content. These monthly analyses were expanded into his column in 2011. He has a degree in biology and a love for all things science and math.