The Building Blocks of Early Literacy

Combating poverty in the earliest stages of life

3 September 2020


Book ownership encourages children to read, and can turn reluctant readers into book lovers. But as with many essential resources, the sense of pride, skill, and confidence that comes with reading is not available to every child in Calgary. Calgary Reads' mission is to create positive change in literacy outcomes for children by mobilizing education, community, and business to care and act together with ingenuity.

Calgary Reads

In the past two years, the Calgary Reads Book Bank has distributed more than 14,000 children’s books to over 2,100 families that are clients of the Calgary Food Bank, many of whom now own books for the first time. They also have programs that donate books to children through their schools, and to babies and infants through public health nurses. Through these measures, book drives, and building awareness about the issue, they are helping to shift an imbalance of book ownership in Calgary.

Early Learning and Care is one of Enough For All's Levers of Change, particularly because consistent reading is one of our greatest tools against adulthood poverty. Literacy plays an integral part in adulthood communication skills, earning potential, and lifelong confidence. This important element of childhood development is proven to play an essential role in a successful adulthood, which raises the question: why do so few children have easy access to books, and what can we do to change this statistic?


Setbacks in long-term learning

Children who struggle to read by the end of grade three may not catch up to their peers, risking low self-esteem and learning challenges. This doesn't have to be the case, but surprisingly, nearly 29 per cent of kindergarten children in Alberta experience great difficulty in one or more areas of development. This is high compared to the Canadian average. Without adequate literacy skills and reading confidence, children are set up for a long and arduous struggle through their school years, a struggle which will likely continue into adulthood and employment.

Lack of availability

Low-income parents at Reading Place schools said their number one need was books for their children at home. Poorer neighbourhoods have fewer libraries and bookstores, and a smaller selection of quality books in each bookstore. In an extreme example reported in one study, a wealthy community had 16,000 children’s titles for sale compared to just 55 in a poorer community in the same city. Without adequate availability or a wide variety of books, children may not find topics or stories of interest to them, and simply forego reading altogether.

Lapses in consistency

If children do not read over their summer vacation, they experience what is known as a summer slide--a steep loss in reading skills over a few short months--setting them behind their same-aged peers. Statistically, 80 per cent of the achievement gap between middle-income and lower-income children accrues during the summer (Alexander, Entwisle & Olson, 2007). If children read more during the school year because the school library is their primary source of reading material, but they are not provided books during the summer, their year-long progress is compromised due to no fault of their own.



of the achievement gap between middle-income and lower-income children accrues during the summer


of kindergarten children in Alberta experience great difficulty in one or more areas of development

1 in 4

children in Canada grow up without books in their homes

  • Child reading a book


Books in the home

Education is one of the best cures for poverty, and as such, one of the easiest ways to improve early literacy is also a tool for fighting poverty. The mere presence of books improves academic outcomes for children, and as few as 20 books in the home has a significant impact, with the benefits increasing as more books are added. Building literacy skills in children is one of the most effective ways to ensure they can achieve their full potential in school and throughout life. The lower their parents' income, the more a child will benefit from having books in their home. By supporting low-income families in Calgary, we can work to lessen the “word gap” between students.

Personal ownership

To become a successful reader, children need books of their own. The most successful way to improve the reading achievement of low-income children is to increase their access to print. Books are a source of knowledge, experience, and a welcome escape for many children, so providing a wide variety of books to choose from allows children a sense of pride and individuality which they can carry through life.

Summertime reading

The most effective summer reading programs put books into children’s hands before summer starts. Why is this? Low-income families may struggle to afford new books or travel to-and-from the library during the summer months. As such, it's helpful and important to ensure that children have their summer reading laid out before their vacation even begins. It's a weight off their parents' shoulders, and a boon to their own education.

Myths and Reality

It can be hard to imagine a life without reading, but for many Calgarians, it's a daily reality. It's easy to jump to conclusions and assume that these realities could be avoided with a little extra attention, or parents who draw a hard line on reading, but the reality for many people is much more complicated than this.

How to Help

  • Be an active Reading Role Model who is seen reading for pleasure and purpose.
  • Create special reading places at home.
  • Read aloud every day with children in your life.
  • If you are able, donate new and gently-used quality children’s books to Calgary Reads. They will distribute them to children in Calgary who really need them.