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Third grade reading levels may determine the number of prison cells Texas needs to build.

This startling statement was first released in the 90s. It’s been questioned and debated, but there is truth behind it: two-thirds of students who cannot read proficiently by 4th grade will end up in jail or on welfare.

Of course, there are other contributing factors to jail time. Illiteracy combined with poverty often results in high school dropouts; incarceration rates among high school dropouts are 63 times higher than college graduates.

Jasmine Africawala, vice president of the Literary Coalition of Greater Dallas, explained, “When people have more time on their hands, this can lead to criminal behavior. They see they can make a quick dollar and they may not have money at home.”

Preventing crime may be simpler than we thought: If a child is proficient in reading in grade school, he is more likely to graduate high school. With a degree, he is less likely to turn to crime.

Poverty Drives Illiteracy

Illiteracy occurs when children don’t have access to books at home or at school.  This is most common among families living beneath the poverty line, a population that has risen to one in five people in Dallas County.

When a child doesn’t practice reading, he falls behind his peers. These students may be too embarrassed to read aloud in class, which worsens their reading level. If a student’s reading level is not proficient by the 4th grade, he is unlikely to ever be a strong reader.

This is the reality for 33 percent of 4th graders, the number of students who are below the average reading level. It’s worse for minorities, as half of black and Hispanic 4th graders are below the basic reading level.

Low Literacy Means High Cost

The Literacy Center estimates that low literacy costs the nation $225 billion or more each year due to failures in the workforce, crime and unemployment. 

Just keeping one healthy inmate in prison costs about $47,000 per year, according to Forbes. And illiteracy rarely affects one person – illiterate parents can’t read to their children, impacting their education and future. Africawala explained, “The biggest issue is generational poverty.”

Buying one $10 children’s book, for your family or your community, could save thousands of dollars. Access to books could change one life, or a generation of lives.

Prevent Illiteracy In Your Home

It’s not enough to buy books for your child. To ensure your student is proficient in reading, you must read to them regularly. This is especially important in the summer, when children’s reading levels often lower.

An article in the Huffington Post suggests the following steps:

 Set an example of reading yourself.  

 Spend at least 30 minutes reading with your child each night.

 Ask questions while reading together.

 Sign up for a library card.

 Attend local library events.

 Give children books at gifts.

Impact Illiteracy Near You  

Twenty-one percent of people in Dallas County lack basic literary skills, but only 3.5 percent are receiving services from the Literary Coalition. This means countless children in the metroplex are without books.

One way to prevent illiteracy is to donate books to the Dallas Public Library. “Just do something,” Ann Clancy, adult literacy coordinator at Dallas Public Library, said. “We are flexible with our volunteers. If an individual wants to volunteer books, we can connect them to a library.”

Another way to impact illiteracy is to volunteer with Dallas Library’s English as a Second Language program. In Dallas County, two out of five people speak a language other than English at home, which raises the rates of child illiteracy.

When you teach a parent English, you also impact a child. “At the literacy center, our students always say they want to learn English for their children,” Clancy said. “They want to be an example to their child and say, ‘I can do it. You can too.’”

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