WASHINGTON, DC - When Washington resident Joshua Clark snuggles with his son in a comfy armchair and reads to him, it brings back uncomfortable memories.
Reading for fun
“I remember my mom almost forcing me to read books [for] those summer reports right before you got back to school, and it was tough,” he says. And it became a chore. That prompted him to decide early on that when it came to his own child, he would make sure reading was an enjoyable experience.
“When you can present things in a joyous way and not a task, you're more willing to do it, and I wanted to provide that for my son.”
The young father has been able to read many great stories to 3-year-old Mason, thanks to the Books from Birth program, which provides free books to every District resident under the age of 5.
A book in every home
Launched by the city three years ago, the ambitious program mails one high-quality book every month to the family’s doorstep.
Clark signed up for the program before Mason was even born.
“I knew I could use this tool to not only bond with my son, but also give him skills that he would need in everyday life,” he says.
Thrive by five
The books are designed to coincide with the child’s age, so early ones may focus on shapes and sounds, and become more sophisticated as the child grows.
Three years into the program, Clark says he’s already noticed the impact on Mason.
“He will repeat a word and understand it and later on repeat it and use it in a way that was used with him,” he says. “And I realized that his exposure to these books has really expanded his vocabulary.”
And that is the main point of the program, said Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser at a recent press conference celebrating the program’s third anniversary.
“We know from all of the research that children who are read to, sung to as well, at home, have a vocabulary that is vastly larger than children unfortunately who come to school without that type of preparation," she said. “And we know having that expanded vocabulary is what allows our children to read sooner, to comprehend sooner, and to really take advantage of pre-K when they enter pre-K.”
Tackling early childhood literacy
DC Council member Charles Allen, who introduced the legislation that established the project, worked closely with the mayor to launch it.
“When I first got elected to the Council, I had a 2-year-old daughter — she's 6 now — and I saw that in her bedroom she had dozens and dozens if not a hundred books. That’s not the reality for every home in DC. And I wanted to do something quickly about early childhood education and early literacy," he said.
“And recognizing what Books from Birth can do, I was able to help create this program that made sure that every kid in DC — no matter where they live, under the age of 5 has one book per month free in the mail with their name on it.”
Reading skills and more…
Mason’s mother, Margaret Parker, says she really loves the program, especially the dual language component of the books.
“Teaching him another language is something I've always had an interest in,” she says. “And getting that exposure to another language at an early age is definitely important. So getting those English-Spanish books have been a great follow-up to songs that we sing, or words that I teach him, or things that he picks up at school.”
Parker says the books are carefully selected to teach other important skills as well. She gave an example of a book she had read to Mason about bugs.
“We were outside exploring, and one of his friends wanted to step on one of the bugs and he said, ‘Oh no, don’t squish bugs’ — a part of one of the books that we read with him — so I thought that was pretty cool to see him make that connection between the two,” she said.
When the library comes to you
The DC Books from Birth program is a local affiliate of Dolly Parton's Imagination Library. The singer-songwriter started the program in 1995 in her home county of Sevier, Tennessee, in honor of her father, who couldn't read or write.
The organization mails a book a month to a child's home, from birth until his or her fifth birthday, no matter the family’s income. It oversees the selection, creation/customization, and fulfillment of more than 1.4 million books each month. The book-gifting organization has, to date, sent more than 115 million books to children in Australia, Canada, Ireland, Britain and the United States.
Tackling the achievement gap
The goal in the nation’s capital is to have 100 percent participation by families — especially those in lower income communities, says DC Public Library Executive Director Richard Reyes-Gavilan.
He explained how difficult it can be for some working families to make it to the library on a regular basis, so through Books from Birth, “the library comes to them.”
The library has an extensive outreach program through local churches, shelters, barber shops and various festivals to try to sign up as many families as possible.
“Ultimately what we want to see happen is what Mayor Bowser wants to see happen, what Council member Allen wants to see happen. We want to see kids in third grade showing that they’re reading at level… and if so, studies over and over have shown that they will be much more likely to graduate and launch careers,” Reyes-Gavilan said.
That's good news for little Mason Clark, who’s well on his way to achieving that goal, and so much more.