Effort needed to break cycle of illiteracy
I’m a fan of the TV sitcom “That ’70s Show,” which focuses on a group of fun-loving teens in suburban Wisconsin, and one episode has always stuck with me.
In the episode, Donna announces she just failed English. Her boyfriend, Eric, replies, “Isn’t that … what we speak?”
I can relate to Eric’s befuddlement.
When I was in school, I was always a bit mystified by the kids who struggled with English. What, I wondered, was the problem? I could understand struggling with a foreign language, or math. But English? That’s what we speak!
Now that I’m a bit older, I’m no longer shocked by sad reports of poor literacy.
I began thinking about the issue years ago, while working as a reporter in Birmingham, Ala. During my time there, I wrote an article about a weekly program that provided single mothers with a children’s book at the end of every session they attended; during these sessions, the women read the book and discussed the themes and plot points they might discuss with their kids.
Reading to your kids might seem like a no-brainer if you grew up in a house filled with books, as I did. But the single mothers didn’t grow up in houses like mine. Most of them had never read aloud to their children before, or been read aloud to. They rarely visited the downtown library. Their homes were bereft of books.
Until I met these women, I’d always thought of reading as a skill that came to people naturally. Because English … that’s what we speak! But reading hadn’t come naturally to the women in the program. It was something they needed to be taught to do, and to do with their children.
I’ve often wondered about the Birmingham program, and whether it was effective. The women I interviewed vowed to bring their new books home and read to their children and take them to the library. Did they? I have no way of knowing. But I hope so.
Like Birmingham, Schenectady has a literacy problem. Approximately 6,000 of the district’s 10,000 students read well below grade level, and most of the children who land in the special education program need intensive reading help. Recently, a federal probe found most of the students in the special education program are not actually disabled and don’t belong there, although they may be way behind in school.
Unsurprisingly, many of Schenectady’s adults are also struggling. According to Sylvia Jimison, executive director of Literacy Volunteers of America - Mohawk/Hudson Region, there are 65,000 adults in the Capital Region who read at or below fifth-grade level. The organization provides free, one-on-one tutoring throughout the area (full disclosure: I volunteer for them), and Jimison said there’s always a need for volunteers, especially in Schenectady.
“That’s a community that tends not to have an adequate number of volunteers,” Jimison said.
The students I’ve tutored have been immigrants, but the majority of Literacy Volunteers’ students — or learners — grew up in America. Jimison said these people are poor readers for a variety of reasons that include a failure to take school seriously or an undiagnosed learning disability. She said most learners are poor and low-income and come from families “that were focused on earning a living instead of education.”
Most literacy programs focus on children, “but there are so many adults who don’t know how to read and can’t help their children,” Jimison said.
Poor literacy is a hidden problem — one that rarely gets enough attention. But the consequences are far from hidden. We see and hear about them everyday, in the form of high school dropouts and adults who aren’t prepared for the workforce.
If you can’t read and write, it becomes much harder to get a job and perform basic tasks, such as buying groceries or writing an email. I have a college education, and I find navigating everyday life extremely challenging. Can you imagine how much more difficult it is to deal with, say, the Department of Motor Vehicles or a health insurance provider when you can barely read? I meet with my literacy student at the library, and about 90 percent of the printed material there is incomprehensible to her — she’s still trying to master “Green Eggs and Ham” and “Hop on Pop.”
A Niskayuna resident, Al Magid, is starting an organization called Reading is Fun that aims to train volunteers to help teach Schenectady students to read. He said he’s currently developing a curriculum and seeking funding in the hope of launching RIF during the 2014-15 school year.
“If you can succeed at reading, you can succeed at so many other things,” Magid said.
I like the idea of a grassroots campaign to help kids learn to read. But what’s really needed is good reading instruction in the classroom. Rita Levay, the Schenectady City School District’s new director of special education, told The Gazette earlier this week many of the district’s special education teachers do not know how to teach reading.
I wasn’t surprised to hear this. Years ago, my reading teacher friend let me in on a little secret: Most schools and teachers have no idea how to teach reading, even though there are proven, scientific-based methods for doing so.
“We know how to teach reading,” she told me. “We’re just not doing it.”
Well, it’s time to start doing it.
Children who can’t read become adults who can’t read. And adults who can’t read don’t teach their children to read.
And the cycle continues.