Early Childhood Literacy, Why it Matters, and Our City

Our Neighbors Face Daily Obstacles to Literacy Access

Together, We Can

Building a strong community that takes care of everyone who lives here depends on your generous support.

Developing literacy skills at a young age is a crucial component of a child’s development in a number of different ways. These include engaging neuropathways, training imaginative and creative thinking, and setting a child up for educational success. By age three, a child’s vocabulary can predict their level of reading achievement in third grade.[1] This ability to read proficiently at grade-level after a student’s third grade year is a strong predictor of their educational trajectory (which in turn predicts long-term success).[2] This means educational success can lead to lower rates of crime, financial and familial stability, better access to healthcare, etc. All of these are ingredients help build thriving communities, and this equation places high importance on introducing literacy materials and strategies in the home before a child enters schooling years. Additionally, when a child develops the ability to imagine (largely through exposure to storybooks), they are able to visualize a reality for themselves that extends beyond their current situation. No matter their childhood experience, if children have the creative capacity to dream, they’re able to imagine an exciting and empowered future for themselves.

It's important to understand that though there are resources available to all, not everyone has the same degree of access to information about the effects of early childhood literacy. In fact, one in four children in the US will grow up without learning to read.[3] Many lower-income families don’t have access to the materials (like books), training and strategies, or even work schedules needed to spend time reading to their children or developing an in-home literacy toolkit. This results in an educational gap--only 20% of four-year-olds living in poverty are able to recognize all twenty-six letters of the alphabet, compared to 37% of their peers above the poverty line.[4]

Early literacy issues are no different here at home. Our neighbors and their children in Greater Chattanooga are negatively affected by a lack of access to literacy education every day. In some Hamilton County schools, the percentage of students in grades 3-8 who are reading at a proficient or advanced level is as low as 6.6%[5], with over 60% of Hamilton County children scoring below proficiency in reading [6]. And according to the TN Department of Education, many elementary schools in our community with lower percentages of English language proficiency in 2017 (many of which are found in under-resourced areas) saw a higher rate of student suspensions in 2018—putting these students at a higher risk of an incomplete education.[7]

Though the statistics might feel bleak, Chattanooga’s early literacy circumstances are far from hopeless. There are many organizations, businesses, and initiatives around the city championing early childhood literacy efforts and providing materials, mentors, and learning/teaching strategies. These resources are equally available to all members of our community, and United Way is working to spread the word to our neighbors. You can get involved by volunteering your time to read to children or donating children’s books at a number of locations. At United Way of Greater Chattanooga, we’re proud to partner with these organizations and programs, including Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, Chattanooga Basics, Read 20, and free children’s storytime at our public library downtown, just to name a few. Check out their websites to get involved right away, and be on the lookout for more information from United Way about literacy programs and their work in our community.


[1] National Center of Educational Statistics

[2] National Center of Educational Statistics

[3] WriteExpress Corporation. "Literacy Statistics." Begin to Read.

[4] National Center of Educational Statistics

[5]  Tennessee Department of Education (2018)

[6] Hamilton County Department of Education

[7] Tennessee Department of Education (2018)


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