Even as we age, many of us still remember our favorite books from preschool and kindergarten. I didn’t feel like I could go to sleep at night without my mother reading “Go Dog, Go!” or “In A People House” just one more time. During preschool, I loved listening to “A Very Hungry Caterpillar” and I still remember when my father visited my preschool to read “Honey, I Love” -- a series of poems about love through the eyes of a child -- by Eloise Greenfield. Frequent exposure to a variety of books at such an early age not only made me realize the joy in reading, but also helped make me the avid reader I am today.
But not all children receive this kind of exposure to books.
I work with a nonprofit organization called Jumpstart. Here are some disturbing statistics that have really come alive for me since I got involved: 50% of children from low-income communities enter first grade an entire two years behind their higher-income peers. Five year olds from low-income communities are exposed to only 5,000 words by the time they reach kindergarten, versus their “richer” peers who enter school with 20,000-word vocabularies. Such an achievement gap is often set in stone before a child even walks through school doors for the first time.
Jumpstart is working to close this achievement gap by recruiting college students like myself to provide preschool kids with the critical language and literacy skills they need to be ready for kindergarten, and ultimately for life.
Statistics are powerful, but children are even more so. My Jumpstart preschooler Maria. began to recognize letters after just a few weeks of our working together. She was so excited to point out the letter “A” on my Jumpstart tee-shirt every day.
“A for Ashley!” she would exclaim.
But the most powerful moment was when Maria came into school with a notebook where, on the first, page, she had written her name. When her mother asked who taught her how to write her letters, Maria proudly said “Ashley.”
I am returning to Jumpstart next year because of children like Maria. An emotional softy, I cried on my last day with her – not only because of how much I would miss her energy and warmth, but also because I realized just how much she had taught me. Every week should be literacy week, and I am determined to help as many children as I can discover the joy of words on a page.
I hope that one day Maria will look back and remember us reading “Peter’s Chair” and “One Dark Night” together. I know that will be something I will never forget.
Ashley Williams is a senior U.S. history major at Columbia University in New York. She began working with Jumpstart in January.
All statements and opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or NBC News.