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Improving Children’s Literacy in “Book Deserts”

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Together with her graduate student researchers and partners around the country, Susan Neuman, professor of childhood and literacy education, is making a definitive impact on children’s literacy.

Since 2014, Neuman has partnered with JetBlue on an ongoing, national study about the disparity in book access for children from lower-income communities.

Children in orange shirts sit around a table reading and talking. In the back, families line up to receive a book from a vending machine.

A Soar with Reading vending machine, in use. 

“A research study I completed in 2001 showed that in underserved communities in Philadelphia, only one age-appropriate book exists for every 300 children,” says Neuman. “JetBlue had been giving away children’s books for years, but they were interested in understanding whether it was making an impact in the way they hoped.”

The findings of this new study confirmed a stark contrast: “Book deserts” – communities virtually bereft of children’s books – exist in high-poverty areas, but not in more affluent ones.

To narrow this gap, together they launched Soar with Reading, a nationwide project in which free book vending machines were installed in low-income neighborhoods. They are located in areas where children are likely to visit but are unlikely to be intentionally looking for books, such as grocery stores, churches, and community centers.

“We wanted to be different from other programs and to re-envision the vending machine from a place you get something fun, like sugary snacks, to something else fun, like books,” says Neuman. “Beyond getting books into kids’ hands, another of our other goals was to show local proprietors and community members that if books are there, then people will want them; it’s spurred several communities to open bookstores.”

The project has changed over the years as Soar with Reading tries to reach different communities; this year, instead of physical books, Neuman and JetBlue decided to try digital vending machines in which children order their books for pickup at a local library or other common areas nearby.

Everyday spaces can be great places for literacy, and if you give communities the opportunity to have ownership and create what they need and want, they will grab it.

Susan Neuman, Professor of Childhood and Literacy Education

Savi Sanghavi (NYU Steinhardt, MA ’23, Counseling for Mental Health and Wellness) and Sweeta Yaqoobi (NYU Arts and Science, MFA ’23, Creative Writing) are two graduate students working with Neuman to collect and analyze data from Soar with Reading. They visited vending machine sites throughout Newark to survey and interact with families using the machines and the managers of the locations to learn about their experiences and hear their suggestions for the future.

“The vending machine is a big touch screen, which is exciting for kids to work with,” says Yaqoobi. “The parents would be very involved, too. JetBlue is very flexible in allowing families to order several books per family, even for the adults.”

Yaqoobi, who is originally from Afghanistan, says that working with Neuman on her children’s literacy projects feels more like a passion project than work.

“I didn’t grow up with books or have access to education for the majority of my childhood in Afghanistan,” she says. “These projects were eye-opening because I learned so much about the technology and research that goes into childhood education. Soar with Reading is not just about providing books, but creating a sense of culture and camaraderie around reading.”

“Our NYU students are so game to assist with these projects,” says Neuman. “Many are interested in social justice and equity, and our work is the center of that, focusing on empowering neighborhoods and families to improve from within.”

Creating Spaces for Literacy

In another children’s literacy project, Neuman is collaborating with the Clinton Foundation’s early childhood initiative, Too Small to Fail, to place “Family Read, Play & Learn” centers in laundromats in metropolitan areas.

A small boy holds a book and peers into a washing machine. Beside him, a librarian points out the colors of the clothes inside.

A librarian and child discuss the colors of the clothing inside a washing machine. 

“Children who live in cities often have to go along with their families to the laundromat, sometimes spending several hours a week there with nothing to do,” says Neuman. “We started in 2020 with a pilot project in New York, adding small areas with couches, books, and blocks. Instead of running around as they would in a regular laundromat, children in the pilot play centers were engaging in literacy activities, letter play, and more.”

The project then launched in 20 laundromats in high-poverty areas throughout Chicago, this time with the addition of staffed librarians who hosted story times and contextualizing activities, such as exploring the laundromat for shapes and colors.

“It was wonderful because these kids were learning a lot about science, math, and motion,” says Neuman. “We did an informal vocabulary test and found that they knew more laundry-related words than kids who didn’t come to these play centers. Through these kinds of activities that engage children in this way, they are more likely to pick up new words and their language and interest develops from there.”

The program has now expanded to Philadelphia, where community volunteers are staffing the play centers – an important element of staying power.

“We have an emphasis on helping the community support itself. These volunteers live in the neighborhood and often have closer connections to these kids and their families,” says Neuman. “Everyday spaces can be great places for literacy, and if you give communities the opportunity to have ownership and create what they need and want, they will grab it.”

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Build on your experience as a teacher to become a literacy specialist and integrate the teaching of reading and writing into your curriculum or research.

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