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Illiteracy Goes Mainstream

It was somewhat disorienting. An article in my local paper mentioned that a ninth-grade teacher was reading a book aloud to her students. When she tried to stop, they demanded, “No, keep going.”

Educational_IlliteracyWhy would she read aloud, I wondered. Why would they want her to continue? Surely they can read the book for themselves. Or can they?

In fact, if all the children in a classroom could read for themselves, very few teachers would think to read aloud in the first place. Traditionally, unless a teacher needs to make a point about a particular passage, students read text for themselves. Class time is for analysis and background.

Then I remembered the recent scores published by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). According to this very extensive testing, only one-third of eighth graders are proficient or above in reading. That clearly means that two-thirds of the students entering ninth grade cannot really read, not in a fluent way. They are less than proficient.

Then things started to make sense. If this was an average American classroom, two-thirds of the children could not, in fact, actually read the book that was being read to them. I knew this in the abstract; but it was a shock to face it concretely, in my own city. Naturally these children would welcome having the teacher read to them. They can’t do it.

At best, they can lurch and guess their way through. The majority of American children are, to some degree, victims of sight-words and bad theory. Typically, they might know 500 sight-words with confidence, and recognize another 500 words sometimes. But most words they encounter are unfamiliar. Imagine you have taken a year of high school French and now you’re stranded in a French village. You can find favorite foods on a menu, navigate the bus system, or decipher street signs. You might be described as functionally illiterate in French. This is what we’re doing to Americans in English. We are making them foreigners in their own country.

Curious to make sure that I understood the story in the local paper, I sent an e-mail to the reporter. Did you mean to say “ninth-grade”?

She wrote back that indeed she did; and she sent me an article titled “Reading aloud to teens gains favor among teachers.”

The only intelligent response is: OMG, it’s really that bad?!

This is a very sad article, published as it is in Education Week and reeking of authority on current practice. So reading aloud to teens is actually commonplace? It’s hard to resist the thought you must’ve dreamed this, because no one wants to imagine the decline is so great.

Reading to kids in kindergarten is smart. Reading aloud to third-graders might be helpful. I can imagine situations in middle school where you might want to expose kids to Shakespearean cadences or what Lincoln’s Gettysburg address might have sounded like in 1863. But just to read ordinary fiction to teenagers?

The article nowhere says -- as in, confesses -- that there might be a reason teachers are doing this. Here’s the reason: lots of kids are illiterate. These poor victims of bad schools just can’t read, so teachers have to read to them.

(You can easily imagine how little science, history, and literature they have read. You can imagine the stunted education they have acquired generally, given that they can’t even read a story.)

What the article does say is things like this: “Many teachers across the country are reading to students in middle and high schools, too, and some education researchers say more teachers of adolescents ought to be using the same strategy. The technique is getting attention amid a bigger push for improvement in adolescent literacy, as educators emphasize that literacy is not just a concern for the elementary grades.”

Isn’t that pathetic? Would that literacy were a concern for elementary grades! Then these children would know how to read before they got to middle school. Our whole problem is that so little of the basic, foundational stuff is attended to properly. Children do not read. They can’t find Japan on a map. They don’t know what 6 x 7 is. They are kept ignorant and illiterate.

That’s what the NAEP scores are shouting. That’s what this reading-aloud article is shouting. More than half the kids can’t read. Illiteracy is mainstream. It’s official.

I love this cautionary note: “Some educators... say that a teacher’s reading aloud shouldn’t become a crutch for students who don’t want to read anything on their own.”

Don’t want to read? What they mean is: for students who CAN’T read anything on their own.

Further along, the article says, “The most common reason for reading aloud, according to survey respondents, was to promote a love of literature and reading.” Is that a snarky literary irony? To promote a love of reading by children who cannot read because they have not been taught to read.

The article becomes more depressing as it goes. We hear about a teacher who “has an interest in helping teacher-candidates envision how they might use read-alouds of picture books effectively with adolescents. A lot of picture books, particularly biographies, she says, are sophisticated and appropriate for adolescents.”

A history teacher in a California high school “uses picture books to supplement the U.S. history curriculum for her 11th graders because such books communicate a lot of basic information in a concise way.” She has read to them, for example, a picture book about Japanese internment during World War II. You would, I suspect, expect to find the lowest literacy standards in schools where PC propaganda is the most aggressive.

One expert sums up the situation this way: “The text of much of the incorporated literature is just too difficult for students with comprehension or decoding issues to read to themselves.” Virtually everyone taught with Whole Word has “comprehension and decoding issues.” That should be a clue.

Let’s for a moment savor the phrase “picture books.” These are books created for younger children who cannot read. Often an adult and child will sit together looking at the pictures. Children can be taught about letters and sounds. But past a point, many phonics experts say, pictures are a hindrance. Unfortunately, many children are told to rely primarily  on picture clues. Obviously, these children will not be able to read ordinary books with few or no pictures. They will need to be read to.

Toward the end of the article, there are two voices of wisdom. A teacher says: “But they’ve got to learn to read on their own, what we call close reading. Teachers who read practically everything aloud to students do them a grave injustice.” At least someone noticed.

Another expert says: “The need to do this at all seems to be a way of glossing over poor reading skills and poor content knowledge that should have been addressed in elementary schools.” Well, this man is a genius; and my kind of educator. But he seems to be a tiny minority.

On the other hand, we hear about a teacher who has read Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” 36 times in six years of teaching. Yes, those numbers are correct. I don’t know about you but I think my brain is exploding.

I’m writing all the time about the illiteracy crisis in this country. I feel I’m repeating myself. On the other hand, you may be reading this message for the first time. So please stare long and hard at this: we have 50 million functional illiterates in this country. That’s a person who was never taught to read successfully in the early grades, who must be read to in high school, and will never sit down to read a book for pleasure.

Such a person is the canary in the coal mine. We have fifty million canaries. They tell us that an unspeakable, unnecessary tragedy is unfolding.

The country’s #1 educational priority should be that children learn to read in the first grade. If our Education Establishment can’t accomplish this essential task, then we obviously need a new Education Establishment.

(For background on the reading crisis, see “42: Reading Resources” . This site was founded in 2005 by Bruce Price, an author, artist, and education reformer.)

Bruce Deitrick Price writes about education. (For how we fight back, see “A Bill of Rights for Students 2012” on the author’s site: Improve-Education.org

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