Why Literary Education Matters

Nov 24, 2020 | Voices from PEN/Faulkner

As has been established by multiple research studies, books and reading have a profound impact on a child’s academic achievement and post-graduation employment success.

A 2012 report by Princeton University and the Brookings Institution found that “over the past forty years literacy skills on assessment tests have not improved much,” despite significant changes in the American labor market. Disparities in average reading achievement between children from low-income families and those from high-income families have also doubled since the 1940s – a particularly troubling trend as “low literacy levels among children from less advantaged families dramatically reduce the potential for upward mobility.”

Not only are strong literacy skills necessary for academic success in fields as disparate as history, science, and mathematics, but they are also essential to participating constructively in a democracy, especially one that faces increasingly complex and global problems. 

Unfortunately, DC is a city in which only 37% of students overall “meet or exceed grade level standards” for literacy, and where students in some neighborhoods live in “book deserts” with only one age-appropriate book for every 830 children.

Furthermore, the impact of COVID-19 on student learning cannot be overstated. Inequitable access to virtual learning technologies and literacy opportunities disproportionately affects lower-income students, widening the gap between students with the resources to learn and students without. This also creates greater challenges for educators, many of whom are already severely constrained. 

In identifying the most effective ways to address these interrelated challenges, PEN/Faulkner’s holistic approach includes –

  1. Donating culturally-relevant books, chosen in conjunction with educators to best fit the needs and interests of their students, and integrated into a teacher’s curriculum through additional multimedia resources; 
  2. Inviting authors into classrooms to bring literary expression to life for these students; and 
  3. Providing students with professional writing instruction. 

Our education programs work in tandem to fully engage students with texts that reflect their lives, identities, and experiences, as well as encourage these young people to kindle a new love of reading and writing in a shared, safe space. Beyond strengthening students’ literacy skills and increasing their self-efficacy (i.e. the belief that they can succeed at specific academic tasks such as homework), we also aim to use literature to foster empathy and inspire students to participate in civil society as global citizens. 

Additionally, PEN/Faulkner prioritizes working with under-resourced schools – of the 4,437 students we served across our four education programs last year, 89.3% of them attended Title I schools, where at least 40% of students participate in free and reduced meal programs.

25% of our 287 program sessions were also part of our Nuestras Voces initiative, which brings Latinx- and Hispanic-centric versions of three of our four education programs to students in the schools we work with, and through which we are starting to address the systemic diversity challenges facing Latinx- and Hispanic-identified students and English Language Learners.

At the same time, while literature is by no means a cure-all, we believe that being able to connect through storytelling is vital for our wellbeing. In a virtual visit with writer Patrice Vecchione (Ink Knows No Borders), after she gave students poetic license, saying “You are now… given permission to write everything you want and anything you want,” one middle schooler wrote:

“Everyday is a new story, don’t end it. Everyday you are inspired, even if you don’t notice. Sometimes I say, “Poems, stories, books, everything!!” Poems, stories, books, everything.”

In another visit with author Jason Reynolds (Stamped), in which he told the classroom that “Racism has convinced so many Black people that something is wrong with us. Nothing is wrong with us. The system is wrong,” one student thanked him “for acknowledging my presence as a Black girl and reminding me that I’m stronger than I think.”

Diverse stories and role models are enormously valuable to students. Access to the resources provided by PEN/Faulkner is an essential part of ensuring that these young people are not only able to develop the critical educational skills necessary for long-term success, but are also able to recognize the value of their own voices and discover a sense of cultural belonging.  

If this is a mission that resonates with you, join us in ensuring that every child, no matter their background or circumstances, has the opportunity to read, write, and be an active participant in civil society. Donate now.

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