How UnidosUS and Its Partners are Promoting Early Literacy Among Farmworker Children


From school closures and a lack of access to technology to language barriers and busy or even illiterate parents, children all across America are struggling to keep up with their reading. For years, Black and Latino children have experienced disproportionately higher incidences of reading difficulty and reading failure. In 2011, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) set its latest standards for how schools should report reading levels according to categories such as race. That same year, the newly standardized data for fourth grade reading showed that 45% of White students were reading at a proficient level, compared to 23% among Latino students and 18% among Black students. In 2019, the data showed White students at 44%, Latino students at 18%, and Black students at 17%.

But there are ways to help, and one of those is the distribution of books—the kind that come with actual pages. This spring, UnidosUS developed a collaboration with the educational nonprofit First Book to provide more than 13,000 children’s books to UnidosUS’s Affiliates operating federally funded Migrant Head Start programs in Florida, North Carolina, Washington, and Utah. Those Affiliates will then get them to the homes of the families of the more than 6,000 children they serve. The collaboration with First Book involved matching grants of $10,000 each from UnidosUS and the Pi Beta Phi Fraternity for Women. The majority of the books are either bilingual or in Spanish, the primary language of most of the children.

The project furthers an already existing partnership UnidosUS developed earlier this year with the educational non-profit ZERO TO THREE’s Think Babies campaign, which seeks to improve developmental outcomes for babies and toddlers by promoting best practices and policies related to affordable, culturally responsive child care, parental bonding, social and emotional learning, and early reading.

Even very young children benefit from interaction with books, says UnidosUS Early Childhood Education Program Director Robert Stechuk, noting that reading promotes and extends bonding between parents and children, exposes children to ideas and information, and promotes skill development and the motivation to engage with books that underlie future reading success.

“Conversations about a book that was read a day ago or a week ago are a great way to boost children’s memory and thinking skills, to explore ideas and to motivate the child to use language,” he says.

And since so many children’s books contain pictures to help drive the story, even parents who can’t read or who don’t recognize the language of the books at hand can extrapolate stories and ideas from those books.

“When children hear language, they’re processing the sounds of the language, the grammar of the language, and they’re figuring out what words mean,” says Stechuk.

That’s precisely what educators with UnidosUS Affiliates like the East Coast Migrant Head Start Project (ECMHSP) work on with the parents of children ages zero to six.

Donna Price, the early childhood education coordinator for East Coast Migrant Head Start’s school in Faison, North Carolina, spends a lot of time organizing Spanish and English books according to age, reading level, cultural relevance, and other unique needs of migrant farmworker families.

For Price, books are a catalyst for helping parents engage with and advocate for their children no matter what their reading levels are.

“Just talk to them. Babies respond when you talk to them,” she reminds parents.

First Book Co-Founder and CEO Kyle Zimmer couldn’t agree more.

“Education is a key component to ensuring that all children succeed and thrive in life and educational equity at the core of First Book’s mission,” she said in a statement. “It has never been more important than it is now to infuse communities with books and resources in the face of school and program closures. With partners like UnidosUS, we can advance fairness by improving the quality of education for children who need our help the most.”

Videographers: Elnatan Melaku Mulugeta and Jayme Gershen. Producers and Blog Writers: Julienne Gage and Gabriela Gomez. 



You might also be interested in:

By Samantha McGinnis, First Book (This was originally posted to the First Book blog.) Welcome to First Book’s celebrity blog series. Each month we will be connecting with influential voices […]