Learning Literacy: How Teachers Can Affect Reading Skill in Low Socioeconomic Students

Lexa Pennington's picture

Educators know better than anyone: Not all students are created equal. A student’s interest and ability to gain skills and information are highly affected by that student’s home life — if parents or guardians aren’t engaged in their child’s education, the child likely won’t be an enthusiastic or effective learner. This is especially the case with fundamental skills that should be practiced early and often, like literacy.

However, it can be difficult to blame parents for their lack of engagement in their child’s education. It’s not uncommon for these students to come from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Parents in these households often suffer as much as their children: They are working several jobs to make enough money to pay bills; they are afflicted by addiction; or perhaps they grew up without an emphasis on formal education and thus do not value it for their children. 

In any case, educators often wonder: What impact does low socioeconomic status have on students’ literacy — in the short and long term — and is there a way for teachers and administrators to truly counteract it?

Learning Literacy: How Teachers Can Affect Reading Skill in Low Socioeconomic Students

How the Home Environment Impacts Literacy

While reading isn’t an acquired skill, like speaking and walking — i.e. it isn’t innate to human existence and thus must be taught — the foundations for a strong and successful reader are laid when a child is young. Studies on literacy show that the sooner a child grasps critical morphemes, or units of meaning within language, the sooner they will begin to learn how to read. That means parents need to be active in communicating to their children, introducing them to new language sounds in their target reading language(s), from the time their babies are born. Dozens of books at home, parents and older children reading to babies and toddlers and plenty of activities inside and outside the home all help with morpheme development. 

This doesn’t always happen, but that doesn’t necessarily doom a child to a life of low literacy. More important to reading skills — and childhood development as a whole — is the quality of care children receive from a young age. It’s critical that toddlers and kids have sufficient stability in their lives, that they do not want for basic needs like food or shelter and that they receive support and love from members of their household. Healthy social and emotional development only occur when a child experiences positive interactions with caregivers, and social and emotional development lay the groundwork for academic learning and skill-building in the future.

Unfortunately, there are dozens of factors that influence a child’s interactions at home, and socio- economic status is a significant one. An ongoing study named Conditions Affecting Neurocognitive Development and Learning in Early Childhood (CANDLE) identifies low income as the top risk factor affecting a child’s home environment — often because caregivers in low-income households are more likely to experience stress and depression that prevents them from adequately caring for their young children. Parents and other caregivers might be more focused on earning enough income to survive, let alone thrive. 

Most children from low socioeconomic households enter high school with literacy skills as much as five years behind high-income peers. Ongoing struggles within academia often encourage poor students to drop out in their teens and/or avoid pursuing more lucrative careers — as some studies say, individuals from lower social class hold “less career-related self-efficacy” and thus lower their vocational aspirations accordingly. 

Ultimately, socioeconomic status affects not only a child’s ability to read but their likelihood of happiness, comfort and success for the rest of their lives, which is why educators should do what they can to reverse the influence of a negative home life as much as possible.

Learning Literacy: How Teachers Can Affect Reading Skill in Low Socioeconomic Students

Effective Strategies for Lending Support to Low Socioeconomic Students

Educators cannot step into every newborn’s home to provide the care and support that counteract the effects of low socioeconomic status, but there are steps that teachers and school administrators can take to ensure children from all home environments gain an equal footing in the classroom.

Early childhood educators have the greatest responsibility for identifying students who struggle due to socioeconomic conditions and helping them reach the skill level of their peers. Factors to watch for include struggling with schoolwork as well as poor hygiene, disruptive behavior and other developmental concerns. It is these students to whom educators need to devote extra resources, especially when it comes to something as fundamental as reading education.

To begin, school administrators should offer programs that provide a healthy, caring environment to low socioeconomic students. Free breakfast, after-school mentoring and more can give poorer children a healthy place to be, and programs like these give school staff more opportunities to provide the responsive, sensitive support that students lack at home. It could be useful to furnish students within programs advanced tools for learning, like tablet computers with access to learning websites where children can practice literacy skills in a fun way. If a school primarily serves lower-income families, devoting limited resources to these programs could be a good way to keep children engaged with school and schoolwork as they age.

If educators cannot organize additional programs for children in poor households, they should focus on improving the school environment to make up for the lack of attention and engagement at home. Building an information-rich classroom and school is vital for saturating young brains with the stimulation they lacked at a younger age, and teachers should be pushed to avoid disengaging with at-risk students, which includes learning not to respond to poor achievement or behavior with anger or frustration. 

If nothing else, teachers and administrators should strive to encourage greater positive interaction between children and parents. Teachers can model the proper social and sharing behavior expected of caregivers, especially when interacting with students around parents. Though it will be difficult, attracting parents to programs that instruct them in fostering healthy parent-child relationships can also be beneficial. In this respect, principals and other administrators can play a crucial role in improving outcomes for students of low socioeconomic status.

Low socioeconomic status is not a new issue for schools. Educators of every level have struggled to address the obstacles posed by income for decades — even centuries — and as yet, there is no quick and easy solution. Reconfiguring teaching styles to overcome learning delays as well as establishing additional supports for children and families in poor environments are among the best strategies for helping students. With concerted effort, it is possible to overcome the hurdles of socioeconomic status, and it is education leaders’ responsibility to do so.