Research and Impact

The Soar with Reading initiative has been committed to developing a scientific research-base to better understand and promote early literacy development and family reading engagement, particularly among under-resourced communities.  Briefly, this accumulated evidence suggests:

Many of our young children live in communities that can be identified as “book deserts.”

Extraordinary as it might seem, in a country like U.S. which has the highest per capita income per person in the world, many of our communities might be described as ‘book deserts’—neighborhoods that are bereft of print resources for young children.  In fact, one might ask, “how do I read to my child, if there are no books to read?’

In this work, we examine the growing economic segregation of neighborhoods for people living in privilege (1%) and those living in poverty or near-poverty (20%).  The analysis reveals striking disparities in access to print even between the families who may live in borderline poverty compared to concentrated poverty.  For these children living in poor communities there are virtually no books to be found during the summer months when schools are closed.  To give evidence of the extremity, 830 children in one of these prominent communities would have to share 1 book in order to read.  Book deserts seriously constrain young children’s opportunity to learn and have an unfortunate consequence in their school readiness.

Employing an innovative strategy, JetBlue’s Vending Machines promotes early literacy development, reaching families where they are.

In an effort to alleviate book deserts, JetBlue turned the attraction of a vending machine, traditionally providing sweets and snacks, into a rich literacy opportunity.  Placing a wide array of children’s books especially targeted to the community in vending machines, children and their families, as well as childcare programs were given access to free books over the summer months.  Participant observations showed evidence that parents and children engaged in greater conversations around books, demonstrating that the ability to select books (e.g. given a choice and not a hand-out) promotes reading engagement.

Traditionally, reading scores for children go down in poor communities during the summer months due to lack of cognitive stimulation and activities.  The vending machines were successful in alleviating this problem. Vending machines helped stymie the traditional summer slide that has plagued children’s achievement in poor communities.  Giving children and families access to print, with books that are of high interest helped to improve children’s school readiness scores and comprehension skills.

Providing a rich array of high interest narrative and nonfiction books that reflect cultural diversity promotes reading interest and family engagement in reading.

Families in communities are diverse and have diverse interests. To better ‘reach families where they are,’ JetBlue’s vending machines include a rich array of historical, biographical and narrative books which include multicultural themes and topics that are designed to attract young audiences and keep them reading. Tracking these selections, the research team found that the most popular books were TV- or movie-related, often tied to favorite characters and super-heroes. Although often dismissed as ‘poor quality,’ these books seemed to promote a ‘reading habit.’ Repeat visitors to the vending machines often turned to books with similar characters, building their reading stamina throughout the summer.

However, there was also a serious side to some of the selections. Among the most popular nonfiction books were recent and historical figures of heroes, reflecting the culture of the community. This research highlighted the importance of connecting the selection of books to local community interests.

Creating a close connection to the local library

Vending machines can spark an interest in reading. Working closely with public libraries in a community, one thing can lead to another. The selections from the vending machine were often devoured quickly, encouraging children to want to read more about a specific topic, or character. Our research found that the JetBlue initiative appeared to enhance interest in visiting the library. In turn, those children who visited the library most frequently during the summer months appeared to have greater comprehension scores at the end of the summer than those who were not in close proximity to these resources.

These results suggest that the libraries and the librarians who so carefully work with young children are the best way to sustain this summer initiative. With great collaboration, JetBlue’s initiative and public libraries team up to create a literacy culture.

Spreading the word through social media

The news about an innovative book distribution program, like JetBlue’s, can spread like wildfire in today’s media environment. Although placed in local areas such as a community setting or a small neighborhood branch library, the extent of its reach was nothing short of extraordinary. Good news travels fast. Mothers’ groups, book clubs, and social networks soon became aware that the vending machines provided books of high interest to their children. Tracking the zip codes of participants that used the machines, we found that some families traveled from miles away, placing the dates on their calendar when a new cycle of books would arrive.

This phenomenon provides a vivid counterpoint to the view that low-income parents are less inclined and less interested in their children’s early education. Rather it shows that providing access to resources–reaching families where they are—is a key enabler toward enhancing parent engagement and children’s early literacy development.

Research Evaluator: Susan B. Neuman, Professor, Childhood Education and Literacy Development, New York University, Steinhardt School