Low-income neighborhoods in major cities across America have book deserts — a limited access to children’s books negatively impacts children’s vocabulary and reading comprehension. Book vending machines, installed in high-trafficked areas within these book deserts by NYC’s JetBlue airline, might be able to combat the problem.
In 2016, NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development led a study in partnership with JetBlue. The results shed a light on the lack of children’s books in low-income neighborhoods across the three major cities of Detroit, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. Those living in concentrated poverty, the study holds, have a much more limited access to print: They live in book deserts. The socioeconomic inequalities can be stark and they come at a cost, given that reading books as a child can have an out-sized impact on someone’s reading skills across the rest of their life.
“Studies have shown that access to books early in a child’s development has both an immediate and long-term effect on their vocabulary, background knowledge and comprehension skills,” Dr. Susan Neuman, professor of childhood and literacy education at NYU Steinhardt and the study’s lead author, explains. “Unfortunately, however, access to books is not equal across different socioeconomic contexts. Children in low-income communities are likely to experience limited access to print compared to their middle-class peers. This lack of access to books contributes to the growing gap in children’s achievement.”
The book vending machines were used as part of a later study that examined how the machines affected children’s reading activities during the summer. Sure enough, children from high poverty areas were more likely to check out books from the machines.
According to a summary of JetBlue and NYU’s collaborative research, their interviews indicate that “parents yearn for resources to help their children and enthusiastically support and take advantage of free books that offer choice, and will read them to children. We have documented that parents engage in rich conversations about books when making selections through the vending machines.”
The program has approval from Dr.Neuman: “JetBlue’s Soar with Reading program helps solve for ‘book deserts,’ areas offering limited to no access to purchase age-appropriate books,” she says. “The program provides age-appropriate books to children who need them most during the summer months when reading tends to decline. Changes like this in the environment can strongly influence changes in behavior, and along with generous and powerful policy solutions, we can begin to close the achievement gap for low-income children.”