When U.S. children enter school, their reading skills vary widely by their socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity, and immigrant status. Because these literacy gaps exist before children enter school, observes Jane Waldfogel, the disparities must arise from conditions outside of schools—from the children’s families and communities. And the same out-of-school factors may continue to influence reading skills as children progress through school.
Waldfogel examines how specific out-of-school factors may contribute to literacy gaps at school entry and to the widening of the gaps for some groups thereafter. Some factors are important across groups. For instance, differences in parenting help explain black-white literacy gaps as well as gaps associated with socioeconomic status. Other factors differ by group. For instance, key influences on early literacy for immigrant children are the language spoken at home, parental proficiency in English, and whether a child participates in preschool.
What happens to early gaps in literacy during the school years also varies by group. Reading gaps for Hispanic children tend to close or stabilize after a few years, perhaps because of such out-of-school factors as strong families, less crime, or better peer group attitudes in Hispanic communities. But black-white gaps and gaps between children from socioeconomically disadvantaged and more advantaged families tend to widen during the school years. An important challenge for future research is to understand why that is the case.
Waldfogel concludes that addressing early literacy gaps, and later gaps, requires tailoring policy responses depending on which group is being targeted. But across all groups, one important conclusion holds. Although out-of-school factors contribute—sometimes in major ways—to literacy disparities, says Waldfogel, schools have a responsibility to try to close such gaps. Research on the out-of-school sources of literacy problems can support schools in this effort by helping practitioners and policy makers better understand which children are likely to encounter problems in literacy and why, as well as what schools and others can do to address those problems.