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November 10, 2013

Early Reading Deficiencies Create Conditions that Enhance Teen Pregnancy Risk

In a recent blog post, we discussed the high cost of poor literacy skills and the potential connection to a young person’s likelihood of being incarcerated in their lifetime. Whether we’re discussing incarceration rates, health, or poverty, early reading skills lay the groundwork for future life outcomes—and teen sex and pregnancy is no exception.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have identified the likelihood an adolescent will become pregnant as yet another prediction that can be made based on a child’s early reading ability. In a paper presented earlier this year, researchers reported that poor early literacy skills were linked to conditions that enhance the rate of teen pregnancy. Their results were startling: Girls with less-than-average reading levels were two-and-a-half times more likely to give birth in their earlier teens.

What Does Reading have to do with Teen Pregnancy?

What exactly, though, does reading have to do with sex and pregnancy in adolescents? There are three main contributors that link poor reading skills with teen pregnancy: a search for social acceptance, low self esteem, and the effects of poverty (often correlated with race). Researchers believe these risk factors, linked to literacy, enhance the risk of teen pregnancy.

Teen PregnancySocial Acceptance

Teenage years are, without a doubt, a challenging time in our development. The need to feel accepted and normal can be overwhelming. Teens who enter high school lacking fundamental reading skills often experience a social rejection in the classroom. Researchers note that teenagers who are not receiving validation through their school work, look for that acceptance elsewhere. And for young women who are “failing” in school and searching for validation, motherhood provides them with a greater sense of pride and acceptance. These young mothers may feel more valued by society for creating and caring for a child.

Self Esteem

Not being able to read with confidence can be embarrassing and can lead to negative attention from teachers and peers. This creates a toxic environment, which in turn can make the decision to abandon school easier. For some teenage girls, childrearing can fulfill a sense of optimism and achievement that was missing in school.

Researcher Rosemary Frasso, PhD noted, “It is quite possible that adolescent girls who experience a daily sense of rejection in the classroom might feel as though they have little chance of achievement later on in life.”

The effects of raising a child as a teen can result in limited opportunities and resources as an adult.

Race and Poverty’s Role

The study also highlighted the role race and poverty play in increasing the likelihood of adolescent pregnancy. The study found Hispanic and African American teens who scored lower on reading tests were more likely to become pregnant during the course of the study than their white peers.

The influence of poverty in academic success is well documented. A new report released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that 90 percent of children of color from low-income families were not able to achieve grade-level standards of reading compared to 68 percent of the general population. Poverty continues to be a major hurdle to early reading success.

The Financial Cost of Teen Pregnancy

In addition to the emotional and social costs that a pregnancy can have on an adolescent, the financial costs to the individual and our communities is especially high. The costs of providing adequate federal and local assistance to teen mothers amounts to at least $10.9 billion per year, according to The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy (2008).

Teen mothers encounter major barriers to higher education and career pathways. In a society where a college degree and dual earner income has become a necessity to earn middle-income status, a teen pregnancy often has serious repercussions throughout their lifetime. For teen mothers, especially single teen mothers, it is nearly impossible to earn a living wage or pursue a degree without some form of government assistance.

Why Invest in Literacy?

At Reading Partners we strongly believe that literacy plays a fundamental role in a child’s life trajectory. Early identification of poor reading skills and early intervention with research-based programs like Reading Partners can change a child’s life. With strong literacy skills, students gain the positive self esteem and motivation they need to succeed in school and in other areas of their life.


Source: Ian M. Bennett MD PhD, Perelman School of Medicine of the University of Pennsylvania, Rosemary Frasso, PhD, MSc, CPH, Scarlett L. Bellamy , PhD Stanton Wortham, PhD Kennen S. Gross, PhD. Pre-teen reading ability: A potential predictor of teen pregnancy.

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