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Dana Gioia comes from a working-class background in California: you would never have predicted he’d grow up to lead a national literacy movement.
His Sicilian father rarely read a book. His Mexican mother read periodicals, and did recite poems to him. He grew up speaking Italian in a Mexican neighborhood.
But the death of an uncle left the family shelves full of books. Gioia now credits those books for his intellectual development, two master’s degrees and a career as a writer of prose and poetry. At the moment, he’s chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.
He’s leading a crusade for more book reading, with influential NEA studies warning about a decline in reading.
The National Endowment for the Arts is responding with what is called the Big Read program. Used in several cities and towns, the Big Read supplies books and teaching materials for community-wide programs, usually through public libraries.
In an article on Indystar.com, Ron Pulliam says Gioia absolutely attributes his literary leadership to those shelves full of academic and classic books.
“Everything else in that gritty, working-class neighborhood had nothing to do with artistic or intellectual life,” he says. He became a bookworm; he frequented the local library. But he kept it secret from his friends, not wanting to be known as a nerd.
Gioia’s experience has been verified in an NEA reading study. Books in the home — even if the parents don’t necessarily read them — promote better scores not only in English, but also in science and math.
The study indicates that shelves of books are more important than income or parental educational background.
“A poor family with books in the house will produce a child, on the average, who will do better in those subjects than a rich kid with no books in the house. The data just shows the power of the home environment.”
In Indianapolis, Jay Height works with low-income families at a community center, sending books home with children. He serves with United Way’s new book-reading push, called “Ready to Learn, Ready to Earn.”
“If a kid even owns six books,” he says, “it has a profound impact on test scores.” If a kid has a book, he’s inclined to open it — and then he’s opened his mind to all kinds of possibilities. “Kids, by nature, are inquisitive.”
The United Way effort in Indianapolis doesn’t stock bookshelves for families, but it does provide them with 12 books a year for preschoolers through “Early Reader” clubs targeted to low-income families.
Middle class families, studies show, read to their preschool children from 1,000 to 1,700 hours before they enter first grade. By contrast, children from low-income families have listened to only 25 hours of reading, on average.
sole source: Russ Pulliam’s article at www.indystar.com on 8/16/08.
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