I told you we would discuss reading today. I know this is election day and you don’t really care about reading or illiteracy or education in general. But tomorrow you might, and my words will still be here. Some of you might have thought I was going to offer a magic formula or program for teaching reading. In all of my years as a teacher I’ve only found one plan that works and that is “use whatever the student needs”. Sad but true…there is no magic, only time and effort. However, there are some fundamental aspects of reading that I think we have abandoned or at least neglected in the past few years. Perhaps a brief discussion of them may spark a renewed interest in reviving them. So here is my general advice for solving our literacy problems:
Read. There are typically three books lying on the table next to my living room chair: my Bible, a non-fiction book, and a novel. I’ve always enjoyed reading, always kept several books around, always read a variety of genres. We might make the assumption, given our constant discussions of education, that we are generally a society that reads. Yet surveys show that 33% of our current high school students will never read another book once they graduate. Our children, our friends, our neighbors, and our family members need to see that we read and that we enjoy it. When was the last time you shared a book review on FB or posted a selfie with a book rather than what you ate for dinner?
Value reading. Many children grow up in families where reading is still considered a valuable part of education, but NOT an important part of family life, social activities, or entertainment. Reading is not valued in their home as an intrinsic life skill. It is associated with “school work”, “college skills”, or “career preparation”. The reality is that reading is the foundation for everything we do and children should grow up with the understanding that reading is as essential as walking. It should also be an enjoyable family activity. My mother often accompanied us to the local library and Dad read the encyclopedia after a hard day in the fields.
Make reading necessary. I recently watched a little girl mesmerized by a game flashing across the screen of her mom’s phone. I looked closely and was disappointed that there wasn’t a single word on the screen. It was simply a combination of colorful moving objects and music. No words, no skills required. She didn’t even have to touch the screen. The “game” was really just eye candy! We need to make sure that more of the games and activities our children engage in require reading skills. And they are quite capable of reading many of the instructions, recipes, and labels that we habitually read to them.
Teach reading. Previous generations of parents often considered themselves quite capable of teaching their child to read. I can still remember my dad telling me that the big word on the car billboard was “Chevrolet” while I was still young enough to stand on the front seat next to him (don’t judge- it was a different time). He routinely pointed out words to me and showed me signs in store windows. My mother read stories and wrote my name in the dirt driveway. We played spelling games and discussed word meanings before I ever enrolled in school. Now it seems that many parents are either intimidated by the idea that they won’t teach reading “correctly” or they don’t bother to do it because preschool will take care of it.
Study successful countries, states, and schools, and copy their programs. Finland has been recognized as the most literate country in the world. We’re number 7. Why? What can we learn from them? I’ve done some reading about their education system and one of the primary differences that caught my attention was class size. Finland has some of the smallest classes in the world while many of ours are growing larger and larger. Some of my friends in California are teaching groups of 30+ kindergarten students. That’s a recipe for mediocrity, if not outright failure. We don’t even need to look across the ocean to see schools and programs that are more successful. Let’s not be fearful of change if it improves our results. BTW, Finland is also strongly opposed to standardized testing. There’s a concept worthy of serious consideration.
Spend the money. We talk about education being a priority, but if we examine almost any aspect of education our spending proves otherwise. Talk is cheap but an excellent education for every child in America is not, and never will be.