Frederick Douglass

“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” ~~Frederick Douglass

I love that quote by Frederick Douglass, but also remember what Mark Twain said: Mark Twain

“The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.”

It broke my heart as a high school teacher to see minority students who had the same opportunities and access to education, totally blow it off. I often wondered if they didn’t know or just didn’t care about all the sacrifices that were made by previous generations so they could have the right to read and learn.

And it’s not just an American racial issue. Since the advent of reading and writing, most civilizations have only allowed the very wealthy and the ruling classes (usually one in the same) to read and write because it was understood very early that reading and writing leads to critical thinking and sharing of knowledge and ideas. This is evidenced by the advances in all fields of study since the invention of the printing press, and the even faster rate of advances since universal education became common throughout the Western world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Literacy is also a major factor in the fight against poverty, infant mortality, gender and racial discrimination, disease, and crime. There are numerous well documented studies, and the United Nations and the CIA World Factbook both publish statistics of every nation’s literacy rate in relation to life expectancy, infant mortality, gross national product, etc. It can’t be a coincidence that the healthiest and wealthiest nations also have the best literacy rates.

And, before we get too excited or think too highly of ourselves in the US, ”

According to a study conducted in late April by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy, 32 million adults in the U.S. can’t read. That’s 14 percent of the population. 21 percent of adults in the U.S. read below a 5th grade level, and 19 percent of high school graduates can’t read. The current literacy rate isn’t any better than it was 10 years ago. According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (completed most recently in 2003, and before that, in 1992), 14 percent of adult Americans demonstrated a “below basic” literacy level in 2003, and 29 percent exhibited a “basic” reading level.” (Huff Post “The U.S. Illiteracy Rate Hasn’t Changed in 10 Years“)

According to the CIA World Factbook, the US reported a 99.0% adult literacy rate, but that doesn’t even put us in the top twenty-five. Also, keep in mind that the definition of adult literacy is simply being over fifteen years of age and able to read and write. There is no minimum standard for comprehension or composition. We can and should do better.

There are heated debates across the US about education. Everything is being questioned from teaching techniques, objectives, classroom size, mainstreaming those with learning differences, teacher qualifications and training, to the merits of school choice, public, charter, private, and home schools. I think debate and dialog can only improve education. I personally am a product of the public school system, and attended both private and public universities. I taught in a public high school, college, and university. When the time came to educate our children, we chose a private pre-school, public schools (and in our school district we were fortunate to choose which school they attended–our eldest went through the magnet school program for gifted and talented, while our youngest did better in the neighborhood schools), and then home-schooled our youngest through his high school years. He is now attending a public college.

After many years of experience, research, and thought on this topic, I assert that the means of education should be left to the parents, and that the parents should have a choice. As most parents will testify, every child is different, and should be raised and educated with his individual personality and learning style at the heart of the decision. What worked for my oldest did not work for my youngest, and vice versa.

After years of teaching English, literature, composition, and reading, and asking a very basic question of over a thousand teenagers, I do know one thing for sure: reading to children is essential to their later literacy and educational success. I asked every class I taught, including high school freshman in remedial reading and writing classes, high school literature courses, and college composition: Were you read to as a child by your parent, grandparent, baby-sitter, or guardian? When I matched the results to their demographic and course information the picture was very clear. Students who were read to prior to beginning school by a significant adult were overwhelmingly more successful in school.

Almost as clear were the lines between ethnicity, class, and gender. Minorities were less likely to read to their children, lower income families were less likely to read to their children, and it seemed boys were less likely to be read to than girls. My remedial classes were almost 90% low-income, minority boys. Only 10% of those students had a learning difference that affected their literacy or qualified them for special education assistance. Add to that the high level of illiteracy among those incarcerated, and the situation is even more heartbreaking. and provide a lot of research and infographics, as well as solutions and suggestions if you still need more information.

I beg every new parent and grandparent I know to read to the children in their lives, from infancy until the children are reading to you. It is such an easy and fun way to safeguard a child’s future. Please join me in reading to children, and encouraging other adults to do so also.

So, that’s what I know of the end result of illiteracy, but I still don’t fully understand why. Why don’t all adults read to their children? Is it a cultural thing? Is it an educational thing? How do we change these statistics?