Bernardo is a second grader. Today his teacher is reading about the origins of the Amazon River to the class. Bernardo knows the river because it is right by his grandma’s house.
The reading today says that the Amazon is the widest, vastest, and most plentiful river in the world. He would like to learn more about it so he asks his teacher, but she tells him that he needs to pay attention. He wonders where he could find more information about it. There are no books in his classroom nor a library in the school where he can look for it. He keeps thinking about how this river became so big and if it is always big everywhere it goes and what kinds of fish live in it and what animals live by it and what happens when you go on a boat far away from the land. Is everything the same? Who are the people that live close to the river in other parts of it?
Last month, I met many children like Bernardo when I was able to observe classrooms in action for a literacy project in Peru, where I am from and now live. None of the classrooms we observed had a classroom or school library. According to the national evaluation, only one in three second graders understands what they read. In the PISA test, three of five students (60%) scored in the lowest levels. The classroom teachers I observed do what they can with the textbooks from the Ministry of Education, but one of many findings about literacy practices includes the astonishing general lack of books for children to read for pleasure.
In the United States, where I’ve taught children from low-income households, the debate among teachers was often more about what strategies to use to teach our students, or how to better teach comprehension strategies for nonfiction vs. fiction books, or vocabulary.
We know that it matters in many ways if children read books, but does the mere existence of a classroom or school library matter? Organizations like Room to Read, who have implemented school libraries in lower-income countries, think it does and have recently offered evidence to support their initiative.
In one year students in India were 80 percent more likely to read for an hour a day than students without access to libraries. In South Africa, students were five times more likely to read for fun at home than students without school libraries. Other factors also stem from the presence of a library in a school that has never had one: librarian and teacher training, school and community involvement, just to name a few.
Returning to Bernardo, he would be able to answer questions and browse through books, or simply read for pleasure, wondering about many topics besides the Amazon. The problem is that organizations like Room to Read have limited resources and cannot build classroom libraries for all developing countries. They must choose countries with greater levels of poverty, leaving those who are on the cusp of middle-income — but with no less needs — underserved.
Meanwhile, Bernardo continues to wonder about the Amazon and will eventually stop.