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Florida Learning Disabilities Research Center



The neighborhood you grew up in may impact how you read today

By: Mia Daucourt

When asked to consider which things matter for their children’s reading ability, parents often mention things that directly involve reading, like the quality of their children’s reading lessons and teachers and how much a child practices reading, either on his or her own or with his or her parents. Since these things directly involve reading, it’s not hard to imagine these things mattering. However, based on recent study by Little and colleagues (2019), we may consider taking a broader view to more fully understand the factors that contribute to children’s reading development. According to a theory called the bioecological systems theory, more than just direct reading-related activities are important for children’s reading development. Rather, children’s reading ability results from many interacting factors, including the children’s reading-related abilities and experiences, like being able to read quickly and reading a lot of books for fun, as well as the kinds of environments in which children grow up. The most obvious and immediate environments that we can imagine influencing children’s reading ability are their home and school environments, but looking more broadly, the neighborhoods in which children’s homes and schools are situated, and the features of those neighborhoods, may influence children’s reading outcomes too.

In order to understand how differences between neighborhoods can impact children’s reading outcomes, the researchers investigated the link between the features of children’s neighborhoods and their ability to understand what they read. They categorized neighborhood features as either risk factors or protective factors. Risk factors were the features of a neighborhood that could potentially threaten or interfere with children’s development, like low average socioeconomic status (SES), which often translates to a scarcity of resources, like money and quality time between parents and children, or exposure to crime, violence, pollution, and disorder. For example, growing up in an area close to a number of homeless shelters and commercial buildings may make children less apt to play outside and more likely to be exposed to loud and dangerous conditions. For risk factors, the researchers included the total reported number of violent and property crimes, liquor sellers, firearm dealers, Superfund sites (areas contaminated with hazardous chemicals), landfills, wastewater facilities, industrial facilities, commercial buildings, and homeless and rehabilitation shelters within a neighborhood.

Conversely, protective factors are those that help children flourish, like high average SES, or having access to many parks, libraries, and museums. For instance, being able to spend time outside and go places to enrich their knowledge about art and the world around them, as well as having nearby access to healthcare may boost children’s development. For protective factors, the researchers quantified the number of parks, nature preserves, and trails, learning centers, including libraries, theaters, art galleries, museums, and zoos, and medical facilities within a neighborhood.

Then, the researchers used satellite technology to map the physical distances between children’s home addresses and all of the risk and protective factors located in their neighborhood areas and compared those distances to children’s reading scores. In doing so, they aimed to figure out how neighborhood composition, based on the risk and protective factors present within a neighborhood, was important for children’s reading development. Overall, the researchers found that only some of the neighborhood features they investigated were related to children’s reading scores, including the distance to landfills, Superfund sites, wastewater facilities, firearm dealers, liquor stores, parks, and zoos. They also found that the distance to firearm dealers and shelters had an especially strong link to children’s reading development, with reading scores increasing as distance from these neighborhood features increased. The researchers also found that the neighborhood-level socioeconomic status was important for children’s reading, and that certain features were more likely to be found in a neighborhood based on its SES. Higher SES communities were more likely to be associated with being close to parks, zoos, landfills, superfund sites, wastewater facilities, and industry, while lower SES communities were more likely to include proximity to shelters, firearms dealers, and bars and liquor stores. Higher SES communities were also more likely to house children with higher reading scores overall.

Finally, the researchers investigated how the combination of different neighborhood features could impact children’s reading scores. They found that, when accounting for all significant risk and protective factors within a neighborhood, the only specific neighborhood feature mattered independently for children’s reading, was the distance from children’s homes to shelters. Upon looking more closely at a subset of families who also reported information on neighborhood safety, they also found that residents from neighborhoods closer to shelters also reported feeling less safe in their neighborhoods overall. Thus, the disorder and potential danger brought on by being close to shelters seemed may potentially thwart children’s reading development to a certain extent.

This innovative study showed that many factors influence children’s reading outcomes. The level of safety children feel in their neighborhoods, their opportunities for mental stimulation, as well as their access to important resources, like health care centers, are all potentially impacting factors on their reading development. It’s important to take these neighborhood risk and protective factors into account when identifying children that may need extra help because their neighborhood compositions are more likely to thwart, rather than support, their reading development, so we can help children reach their full potentials.

Citation: Little, C. W., Hart, S. A., Phillips, B. M., Schatschneider, C., & Taylor, J. E. (2019). Exploring neighborhood environmental influences on reading comprehension. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 62, 173-184.