By Sophie Hurwitz

Even before COVID-19, only about 20% of Black third-graders in the city of St. Louis were reading on or above grade level. This disparity in literacy levels is hardly confined to the city. It is representative of a pervasive issue throughout the region.

“This whole idea of rendering children invisible…that they don’t see themselves through the learning process, that’s traumatic. That’s an adult issue. That’s not a child’s issue.”

Julius B. Anthony, founder of St. Louis Black Authors of Children’s Literature

The disruptions to learning that COVID-19 brought, according to the Black Education Research Collective at Columbia University, have made the situation worse. In a July 2021 report, it found that around 45% of Black educator respondents were “extremely” concerned about the academic progress of Black students in the wake of COVID-19, and a little more than 30% of respondents felt that the mental health and wellness of Black students was “extremely impacted.”

Research has well established that literacy is critical to students’ ability to thrive. Youth literacy is a strong predictor of later success: A student who can’t read at grade level by third grade is four times less likely to graduate by age 19 than a child who does read proficiently by that time, according to an study.

And if students fail to meet minimum literacy requirements in the third grade – which 75% of Black St. Louis students and 35% of white St. Louis students don’t meet – they run the risk of being held back a year in school until they do. Known as a reading retention law, this statute in Missouri (and many other states) incentivizes schools to hold back the children who don’t pass third grade reading assessments–such as the majority of the Black children in the city of St. Louis. 

Local leaders such as Julius B. Anthony, founder of St. Louis Black Authors of Children’s Literature, are on a mission to change that landscape and make literacy education in St. Louis work for Black kids. 

“The reality is that Black children weren’t doing well prior to the pandemic,” Anthony said. “And so it makes perfect sense that what was a cold prior to the pandemic has turned into a severe flu as a result of the pandemic. And so, our issue continues to be a severe one, a nefarious one, and as we look at Black children this isn’t new for us.”

Anthony added that mainstream narratives often blame Black kids themselves for lagging behind in literacy, when in reality the problem is structural, and “it’s the adults’ responsibility to fix.” He described experiences in classrooms where students don’t see themselves represented as “traumatic.” 

“The learning to read process must be a joyful one…for many children, it is a traumatic experience,” Anthony said. “This whole idea of rendering children invisible…that they don’t see themselves through the learning process, that’s traumatic. That’s an adult issue. That’s not a child’s issue.” 

The strategies for getting that literature to children, though, have had to adapt even as COVID exacerbates disparities in children’s literacy. Sheila Oliveri of Ready Readers, a nonprofit that has been sending volunteers into area schools and daycares to get preschool-age children more engaged in reading and to distribute reading materials in low-income areas since 1997, said the organization’s way of accomplishing that work has evolved throughout the pandemic.

When COVID-19 first came to the area, Oliveri said, Ready Readers went remote, finding its way into daycares and preschools through Zoom and Google Meet, doing read-alouds more or less as usual – just on big screens in front of classrooms full of criss-cross-applesauce kids, rather than sitting among them. This strategy, however, didn’t work for the youngest children Ready Readers serves. 

“It’s a little bit ridiculous to expect a 3 year old, certainly a 2 year old, even a 4 year old to be able to focus on a screen and, and have a sense of reality about that,” Oliveri said.

“They don’t know what’s real and what’s make-believe…they’re used to watching a screen and being a passive observer.” The kids found it too difficult to focus on the screen and understand that it was a person there talking to them through the screen rather than a TV show.

To compensate, Ready Readers has been sending more books into schools, along with instructional material to help parents help their kids engage with the books. Surprisingly, this meant that more children could engage with the reading material Ready Readers provides.

“We jumped from having, say, 85 classes of 2 year olds to having 250 classes of 2 year olds,” Oliveri said. They also branched out from reading to other skills that may help children with literacy by helping them understand a confusing and often traumatizing world – and teaching them new ways to articulate and process their responses to that world. 

“Why do kids exhibit inappropriate behavior? Mostly because they don’t have the communication skills to tell people what they need, then they get frustrated, and then they act out to get attention,” Oliveri said.

“We need to start naming these emotions for kids and giving them books to read that talk about it. And then we need to play games with kids, where they can explore these emotions.”

Ready Readers has started working with teachers to explore trauma-informed practices, yoga for kids, and other ways to help children deal with stress–so they can then move on to the critical business of literacy. The St. Louis Black Authors of Children’s Literature, Anthony said, are embracing a similar strategy–and encouraging parents, teachers and community members to think more broadly about literacy in order to make it more accessible. So are organizations such as the region-wide Turn the Page STL, which is partnering with local libraries and districts to provide access to books, virtual learning, games and other activities to children in high-poverty areas even while they aren’t in school.

After all, as Anthony explained, literacy goes far beyond books and beyond the classroom walls. “It’s theater, it’s graphic novels, it’s digital interactions…it’s the way we walk, it’s the way we talk.” That means that many paths beyond teaching A B Cs and how to recognize phonemes might be useful in helping kids learn literacy. 

“Literacy is all around us. If music is the pathway, use it. If speaking, if oral tradition is the pathway, use it.” 

Whatever pathways are used, though, one thing is clear to Anthony: we must do better.

“The research says that you must be a reader at the end of third grade in order to have a successful experience in school, and to have a thriving adult life,” he said. “If that is true…then we’ve got to do better by black children.”