Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

By Courtney Runn

Teach a person to read and you open a door—not only to an unparalleled world of wonder and entertainment—but also to independence, freedom, and success. 

Yet those doors are remaining closed for too many Texans: Just 25 percent of Texas public school fourth graders scored at a “proficient” level or above for reading in a 2017 study, a full ten points lower than the already-unacceptable national rate of 35 percent. 

Going by the statistics, the deck is already stacked against the three-quarters of children who fell short. Research shows that childhood literacy is crucial for achieving further academic success. Students that can read by third grade are less likely to drop out of high school and subsequently less vulnerable to poverty and unemployment. And adult literacy directly correlates with quality of life, as well. 

What’s more, around 70 percent of U.S. prison inmates operate at the lowest literacy level, according to the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, and 80 percent of inmates at Austin-area Del Valle Correctional Complex don’t have high school diplomas. 

From poverty to equity to criminal justice, just about any social issue you might care about can be positively impacted by supporting literacy. And Austin offers a plethora of options for doing just that. Explore these eight local nonprofit organizations for opportunities to help open the door to literacy for all. 

Book Spring

BookSpring advocates for childhood literacy at home. The organization is dedicated to the premise that early intervention is key to setting reading habits and ensuring children are literate by the third grade, a key milestone for educational success. To support families reading together, the nonprofit sends children books and is working toward the goal of sending at least three books a year to 80,000 Central Texas children living in poverty. 

Get involved: You can donate financially, drop off children’s books, or become a sponsor. Book Spring is also currently looking for digital advocates and volunteers to sort and label books at home. 

El Buen Samaritano 

Among its many services for the Central Texas Latinx community, El Buen Samaritano offers English as a second language (ESL) classes for adults and a school readiness program for parents preparing their young children for elementary school. The organization, a service branch of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, has worked in the community for 30-plus years and serves more than 10,000 people each year. 

Get involved: Apply to be a volunteer or donate financially. 

Inside Books Project

Since 1998, Inside Books Project has supported literacy and education in Texas prisons. Operating on the principle that every prisoner has the right to read, the nonprofit sends free books and reading materials to prisoners, along with personal letters. Inmates can write back to request certain books and genres. 

Get involved: Volunteer to choose books and write letters to inmates, donate financially, or donate books. 

Literacy First

Recognizing that early childhood literacy directly impacts future educational success, Literacy First works to build a strong literacy foundation for children in Central Texas. The nonprofit partners with school districts to provide daily tutoring for students in kindergarten through second grade. In the 2019-2020 school year, Literacy First worked with more than 1,000 students across 25 schools in the Austin area. 

Get involved: Literacy First accepts financial donations and applications from tutoring volunteers on its website. 

Literacy Texas

Literacy Texas supports nonprofits across the state in their literacy initiatives. Through regional and statewide training sessions, the organization offers professional development and networking opportunities to better equip volunteers and advocates to promote literacy for all Texans. 

Get involved: Become a member, donate financially, become a literacy advocate, or get connected with a nonprofit to volunteer. 

Reading Rock Stars 

A branch of the Texas Book Festival, Reading Rock Stars brings authors into Title I schools to support childhood literacy and sends students home with their own books. The program partners with schools in Austin, Rio Grande Valley, Houston, Dallas, and Fort Worth. 

Get involved: Support the Texas Book Festival through volunteering or financial donations. 

The Literacy Coalition of Central Texas

Since 2001, the Literacy Coalition of Central Texas has pursued its mission of breaking “the cycle of intergenerational poverty through comprehensive literacy services.” It serves Texans through a variety of programs, including workplace English lessons, career development services for low-income adults, and parent education on getting kids ready for kindergarten. 

Get involved: The Literacy Coalition has multiple volunteer opportunities at varying time commitments and also accepts financial donations online. 

Women’s Storybook Project

According to the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, 81 percent of incarcerated women are mothers. After hearing about a program that allowed incarcerated mothers to read to their children, founder Judith Dullnig was inspired to create something similar in Texas. Since 2003, the Women’s Storybook Project of Texas has helped mothers record themselves reading books, so their children can still hear their voices and receive the benefits of parental reading. 

Get involved: The Women’s Storybook Project works with volunteers to record stories and accepts financial donations.