The ability to read and write.
Declining literacy in the United States has been an increasing cause for concern in recent decades. The Department of Education's National Adult Literacy survey, released in 1993, surveyed a demographic cross section of 27,000 Americans over the age of 16 and found that nearly 50% were functionally illiterate (lacking the reading and writing skills to function effectively in the work-place). Of these, almost half were barely able to read or write at all, while the rest lacked literacy skills beyond the fifth-grade level. The literacy level of adults between the ages of 21 and 25 had dropped 14% since the publication of a similar survey in 1985. The country's literacy crisis has also been documented by declining SAT scores over the past 30 years, especially on the verbal portion of the test.
Literacy and the schools
Numerous reasons have been cited for the rising illiteracy rate in the United States, including such social and cultural factors as overcrowded classrooms, television, drugs, the breakdown of the American family, and the growing ethnic diversity of the student population. The American education system itself has been criticized from a variety of viewpoints. Following the lead of Rudolf
Literacy and the family
Although schools are responsible for formal reading instruction, families play a crucial role in a child's acquisition of literacy skills. Parents who value language and literacy are likely to pass on this quality to their children, while the acquisition of literary skills is more difficult for children from homes where reading is a low priority. One of the greatest problems posed by the current high rate of functional illiteracy in the United States is that the children of illiterate parents are at risk for educational failure. In addition to providing a negative role model, parents who are illiterate are unable to read to their children or support their school participation in such routine ways as responding to teachers' notes or helping with homework. Children of high school dropouts are six times more likely than their peers to drop out of high school themselves. In response to this problem, family literacy centers have multiplied throughout the nation—their number grew from 500 to over 5,000 in the 10 years between 1985 and 1995. Recent studies have found that such programs have made a dramatic difference in helping at-risk students avoid having to repeat grades in school.
Lack of cultural responsiveness by educators has been cited as a cause of literacy problems among ethnic minorities. It is important for children to have continuity between the early at-home learning they do with their parents—who are their first language teachers—and their later experiences at school. Strategies for insuring this kind of continuity include having teachers familiarize themselves with the speech patterns and learning styles of the different ethnic groups they teach.
Reading out loud
Of the various things parents can do to help improve their children's language skills, one of the most important is reading out loud to them, even after they are old enough to read by themselves. Many writers and other language experts have lamented the decline of oral reading, which was once a popular pastime among young and old alike. According to a 1990 survey, only 20% of parents read to their children on a daily basis, while 42% read to them two to three times a week. Reading aloud stretches a child's imagination and attention span; provides new information; enriches vocabulary; exposes children to good grammar; improves listening comprehension; and provides a positive role model.
Infancy. Any child who can be talked to can be read to as well. In fact, researchers have demonstrated that infants can distinguish passages that have been read to them in utero. In infancy, the most important component of reading aloud is simply the stimulating and reassuring sound of the parent's voice. Books should be chosen to stimulate sight and hearing. Over the first months of life, the infant takes an increasingly active role in the ritual of reading, changing from a passive listener to one who turns the pages and points to pictures. Frequent short readings are recommended, as an infant's attention span on books is only about three minutes.
Toddlerhood. Picture books are an excellent way to help toddlers begin learning to name familiar objects. This is the stage when children first acquire favorite books. Experts have pointed out that as boring as the constant repetition may be to adults, the child may really be finding something new in the book with every reading. Repetition also improves the child's memory, vocabulary, and sequencing abilities. At this stage, children are drawn to books that provide reassurance, humor, predictability, and characters with whom they can identify.
Preschool and school age. As the child continues to mature, her attention span may be expanded by choosing longer books—including books with chapters—that can be read over the course of several days. School-age children can benefit by a cross-disciplinary approach that encourages outside investigation of topics that are brought up in their reading material, such as a project that calls for locating the settings of their books on maps. It is also important for students to have an adequate opportunity to discuss stories that are read to them. Even in the upper grades, many picture books retain their fascination. Older children (and, indeed, adults) can always find new levels of meaning in books that they read when they were younger. At the same time, children in the upper elementary grades can also be introduced to short novels as read-aloud material. Reading aloud need not stop with the advent of adolescence: in-class reading of such texts as poems, magazines articles, and newspaper columns can open up new areas of interest for older students to pursue further on their own.
Family activities to promote literacy
It is helpful for parents to keep up with subjects that children are reading about on their own so they can discuss them together. Parents can also transmit a love of reading to their children by providing a positive example and being active readers themselves. Children who see their parents caught up in an absorbing novel or reading about a favorite hobby will be more likely to pursue their own interests through books.
Although reading is generally a solitary pursuit, literacy can be enhanced through group activities involving the whole family. Even an ordinary activity like dinner table conversation can improve language skills, and experts say that parents should not talk down to their children by avoiding big words, which can help build a child's vocabulary. Parents can make language acquisition fun for their children through word games and even playful activities based on such mundane reading matter as product labels and road signs. Another important family activity is the regular visit to the neighborhood library. In addition to checking out books, children can be encouraged to participate in activities such as book clubs and special readings.
In addition to instilling in their children a genuine enjoyment of reading, parents can also emphasize the importance of literacy in making sense of the world and even in making it a better place. Children can be encouraged to keep up with current events through children's magazines or children's pages of the local newspaper. Educators also recommend having children write letters to public officials and letters to the editor about public issues and causes that arouse their concern.
Chali, Jeanne. Learning to Read: The Great Debate. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1983.
Flesch, Rudolf. Why Johnny Still Can't Read: A New Look at the Scandal of Our Schools. New York: Harper & Row, 1981.
Leonhardt, Mary. Parents Who Love Reading, Kids Who Don't. New York: Crown Publishers, 1993.
Lipson, Eden Ross. The New York Times Parent's Guide to the Best Books for Children. New York: Random House, 1988.
McCuen, Gary E. Illiteracy in America. Hudson, WI: GEM Publications, 1988.
Morrow, L. M. Literacy Development in the Early Years. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1993.
Trelease, Jim. The Read-Aloud Handbook. 4th ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.
National Clearinghouse on Literacy Education
Address: 1118 22nd St. NW
Washington, DC 20037
Telephone: (202) 429-9292
Literacy Volunteers of America
Address: 5795 Widewaters Parkway
Syracuse, NY 13214
Telephone: (315) 445-8000
Project Literacy U.S. (PLUS)
Address: Box 2
4802 Fifth Ave.
Pittsburgh, PA 15213
The National Center for Family Literacy
Address: Waterfront Plaza, Suite 200
325 W. Main St.
Louisville, KY 40202-4251
Telephone: (592) 584-1133