Sunday, May 18, 2008

Fighting Illiteracy is a Community Effort

I just returned from a weekend in Morgantown, WV to see my younger sister graduate from pharmacy school. As I watched her walk up to the podium and get hooded, I felt an immense pride for her. She has truly worked very hard to get this degree, and I know she will have a successful and fulfilling future.

On the four-hour drive home, I couldn't help but think about how many people will never even get the opportunity to go to college, much less graduate from pharmacy school, because they never learned how to read.

My main mission for this blog is to help parents, teachers, librarians, aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc. instill the love of reading in the children in their lives. I often talk about reading for fun and give recommendations for books that children can have fun with because I strongly believe that if reading is not thought of as being fun, children simply won't ever pick up a book and read it unless they're required to.

However, I'm not a strong proponent of reading because it's simply fun. Do a quick Google search, and you'll find tons of sites that discuss the benefits that stem from reading with children. Not only does it create a bonding experience between a child and the adult reader, but it helps develop language and listening skills, sparks creativity, and much much more.

Most importantly, knowing how to read is essential for being able to live a productive life. I've mentioned before that I'm a former literacy tutor who worked with adults to help them build literacy skills. I've also witnessed firsthand how illiteracy can impact a teenager's self-esteem. When I taught ESL, I had students from all over the world. Some of these students were refugees from war-torn countries like Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and most of them had missed years of schooling and had either never been taught to read or write or had first or second-grade level skills.

While everyone's life stories were just as diverse as their backgrounds, the thing they had in common was a deep embarrassment for not knowing how to read. Before and after tutoring sessions they would tell me how frustrating it was not to be able to read road signs, menus, nutritional information on food boxes, and not being able to fill out simple forms. They talked about feeling "dirty" and "stupid" because in order to get by, they had to lie about being illiterate to get people to help them. Also, most of my literacy students felt a deep rage about being allowed to get by in school. They'd been denied what they considered a basic survival skill. For many, it was easier for teachers to pass them than to help them, and I personally experienced this when I had to fight hard to get services for my high school students. It was easier to use their language barrier as an excuse than to enroll them in literacy programs.

In addition, our nation's school system seems to be turning into one focused on teaching children how to pass tests than teaching them life skills that will help them become successful adults. Teachers are being evaluated based on how their students perform on one multiple choice test and are being forced to "teach to the test." In my school system, it was easier to focus on the kids who had potential to pass the state standards of learning tests than to help the ones who couldn't. They seemed to accept that there would be some failures instead of helping these "failures" develop basic literacy skills. Can you imagine what that does to a child's self-esteem and motivation, to realize that you are one of those "failures" and that people have given up on you?

This is completely unacceptable, and it takes a community of people to be able to change this. So, I implore you to take a look at these warning signs of struggling readers, and if you notice them in a child in your life, please seek help. If you meet resistance along the way, don't give up. Our children, every single one of them, deserve a chance to live a successful life. They deserve the chance to be able to fill out a job application and read a map. They deserve a chance to feel like a contributing member of society. They deserve the chance to spend a rainy Saturday afternoon curled up with a good book.


  1. This is a great post ... very thoughtful, so on target. The links are perfect. We loved it so much we have it in our Monday Round-Up in the Reading Tub.

    Go Mountaineers!

  2. Hear, hear!

    It's deplorable how children are allowed to slip through the cracks. Especially those that would actually like to learn, but were let by early on and have gotten to the point of being too embarrassed to find the help they need.

    Great post and congratulations to your sister!

  3. Terry,
    Thanks for the feedback and for linking to me in your round-up!

    Thanks also to you for your feedback, and I completely agree with that allowing a child to slip through the cracks is deplorable. It unfortunately happens way too often.

  4. I'm proud of your sister too, and I'm also very proud to have you!
    Good job...
    Love, Mom

  5. Well said, Jill! I think this is an important post, and, like Terry, I'll be linking to it. Thanks for defending the struggling readers - I think that you're making a difference through what you're doing on the blog.

  6. Jen,
    Thank you SO much. YOU are making a huge difference with YOUR blog, and it means a lot to receive such positive feedback.

  7. Kindred spirits, Jill. Kindred spirits. I just linked to your post, as well as to a couple of other articles that you should see if you haven't already.

    I would like very much to think that we're both making a difference.