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November 10, 2020

The opportunity gap at the core of a nationwide literacy crisis

With reflections of a reading partner

Literacy is so much more than reading books

“If you are reading this, you are literate,” announced my teeny-bopper t-shirt. There was a shiny apple on that shirt, with a sizable worm poking out. Twenty years later, the educator in me cringes to think of all that underlies that statement, the core of that symbol for learning. 

As an English as a Second Language teacher working closely with immigrant families in the Bronx, some unable to read or write in their mother tongues, I had a clearer picture of what was at stake when one is not functionally literate in the language of one’s adopted country. I heard things like, “I want to help my daughter with her school work” and “I want to understand the doctor’s report myself.”

Learning to read is important. But it is only the first step to navigating one’s social and political landscapes. In fact, the NCES finds that the average adult American has a reading level equivalent to a middle schooler between 12 and 14 years old. Can the American population read? Yes, but to what extent are we able to understand written materials? To take action based on what we have understood? And most importantly, why does it matter?  In a society permeated by information media, literacy should be empowering Americans in every aspect of life. Unfortunately, that simply isn’t the case. 

“…He’s only eight, and it’s been twenty minutes already. I feel my lips forming each sound along with him as he reads out loud, likely more words in one sitting than he has since I saw him last March. Mom is off work today, so he had help logging on…”

literacy crisis

Reading comprehension enables children to acquire the skills they need to thrive

A lack of literacy is at the root of many core challenges and opportunities we face as a country. So, to strive for a more literate America, Reading Partners created Rise Up For Reading 2020. This nonpartisan campaign aims to ensure voters of all stripes are hyper-aware of the critical role reading, and reading to learn, plays in ensuring bright futures for US students.

“…I fight all my teacher instincts not to remind him to use the rest of the sentence for context. This is the reading level placement test, after all…He times out again on the question projected on the screen…

literacy crisis

The literacy challenge

The revolutionary possibilities of a literate America are compelling. Basic literacy skills will radically affect the depth and breadth of kids’ experience as adults. This includes their access to resources such as food, medical attention, and higher education.

Literacy skills also build a foundation for a lifetime of knowledgeable participation in, and understanding of, the political process. Because of this, it is essential that citizens have the reading stamina and comprehension to navigate a web portal, apply for dental insurance, or determine the pros and cons of four pages of a proposition on a ballot. As former Secretary General of the UN Kofi Annan reflected, “Literacy unlocks the door to learning throughout the life, is essential to development and health, and opens the way for democratic participation and active citizenship.”

By high school, one in three US students finds themselves functionally illiterate—able to decode strings of words, but not to gather meaning and think deeply about what they read. The lack of access to literacy support for some kids holds arguably too much power over their future opportunities. The number of children falling behind in grade-level reading skills proves higher among students experiencing economic disadvantages: over 9 million children in US public elementary schools are not reading at grade level. Of those fourth graders reading below grade level, 35 percent are white, 34 percent Hispanic, 23 percent African American, and 8 percent “other” (according to the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES)). These differences by race/ethnicity reflect systematic barriers that have been left unaddressed since Brown vs. Board of Education desegregated schools.

“…I notice myself frowning as I realize he will need to start in Beginning Readers, though he is in third grade this year. I relax my face back into a smile, and congratulate him on sounding out that three-syllable word…”

The US Department of Education defines adult literacy and numeracy in terms of skills that help people accomplish tasks and realize their purposes.

By this definition, it seems inadequate that discourse on the literacy crisis has long been contained to the academic realm. A New York Times report entitled “Half of the Adults in the US Can’t Read” revealed a growing functional illiteracy problem, where 50% of Americans – “nearly half of the nation’s 191 million adult citizens…have difficulty with reading comprehension, filling out documents, understanding and summarizing facts in an article or writing a paragraph summarizing information.” Statistics are sobering in reflection on what this means for individual and family health. Essentially, patients with low literacy may not use preventative services, have delayed diagnosis, or adhere to medical instructions, unnecessarily inhibiting their quality or extent of life.

Reading Partners is part of a growing network of nonprofits, schools, librarians, and government agencies working to ensure kids in school today have access to supplementary resources to narrow the literacy opportunity gap. 

“…He sighs as another short paragraph pops onto the screen. The election updates blare in the background as a little voice yells for mama and a bath towel. I can see Grandmother in the kitchen from our perch on the top bunk. He blinks hard and refocuses his eyes on the text of the question…”

literacy crisis

Literacy will fuel a healthy, inclusive democracy

Learning to read will empower the next generation of voters to be better informed and more civically active. The 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results showed that only 14 percent of US students can distinguish between fact and opinion writing. This points to a lack of general reading comprehension. Subsequently, these findings signal the extent to which young people will be able to accurately process information in the future.

In May this year, one US Circuit Court of Appeals issued a landmark decision that kids have a right to “a basic minimum education” that gives them the opportunity to become literate. One cannot effectively vote, answer a jury summons, pay taxes or even read a road sign if illiterate, wrote Judge Eric Clay.  This was the first time a federal court focused more on the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment, with the students’ counsel claiming the Constitution protects essential rights that “you can’t imagine our constitutional democracy or our political life functioning without.”

…”Shouldn’t there be more kids here, like last year?” he interrupts suddenly, referring to our busy reading center. The clarity if his question oddly surprises me, especially after his labored reading. There certainly will be; my goal is thirty-two in his school by March 2021…I list off some of his enrolled classmates’ names (one is his cousin, he tells me). He suggests we might have a party at the end of the year. “Just four more questions,” I remind him, and he starts again, slowly…

literacy crisis

Unprecedented opportunities to collaborate with students and families 

Reading Partners knows we work where the need is highest. Illiteracy does not begin in adulthood. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) assesses student performance in reading at grades 4, 8, and 12 in both public and private schools across the nation. In 2019, their reports showed consistently lower scores for students in highest poverty schools. English Language Learners (ELLs) also showed consistently lower scores than their non-ELL classmates.

Reading Partners created the Rise Up For Reading 2020 campaign because we can no longer stand by and watch while the opportunity gap affords some the right to a quality education, while to others it does not. Strong early literacy can build the best possible future for all students and communities. 

Though COVID-19 has radically altered the face of education, with the right support in place, every child can learn to read and participate in their community to the extent they desire. Through Reading Partners Connects, we continue to work together towards a literacy commonwealth. 

“…Thirty-four questions and closer to 40 minutes later, he finishes the test, smiling. ‘Phew- that one really was challenging.’ I like the words he chose, but I like the next ones even more: ‘Can we do this again tomorrow?’ ‘No-,’ I reply, ‘but you’ll meet your tutor next week.’”

literacy crisis

What can you do?

Exercise democracy by volunteering, and encourage others to do so. Also, be the voice of conversation in your industry, pioneering ways to build communities strong in numeracy and problem-solving. Advocate to make literacy a core focus among local, state, and national legislators. We can broaden the discourse on literacy in America. But we need your help. Volunteer or donate today.

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