Literacy

“The idea that we have undergraduates who don’t read books distresses me. Of course, I know that they do read. …  They read in print and electronically. They read articles. They read blog posts. They exchange these items on Facebook and elsewhere. But reading a book, even a popular novel, requires some measure of sustained attention, and reading a serious book requires concentration and intellectual effort to comprehend and absorb the material.”  from http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/2012/01/send_me_a_man_who_reads.html

We aren’t born knowing how to read, but we are born knowing how to speak. Babies learn their local language, including grammar, syntax, and even word choice by listening to people around them talk. If you “goo-goo” and “gaa-gaa” to your baby, that’s the language he’ll learn. If you speak to him in proper sentences using “grown up” words, those are the words he’ll learn to use. But that doesn’t mean he’s literate. Literacy requires the ability to read.

It wasn’t until mass-produced books became available that literacy became important. Gutenberg starting printing on his press in 1436, but printing didn’t really go mainstream until the 1800s when iron presses were operated with steam power. At first, illustrations were a large part of the book (because the average person was not literate), and group reading out loud was the norm. You didn’t read a Bible passage and interpret it using your own view of the world; a priest told you what you should believe.

Unfortunately, many people in the US today, still, are only functionally literate. That means they can read just enough to get by. For example, immigrants and children of immigrants in the US are often considered functionally illiterate because of language barriers. They speak their native language at home, and then are expected to speak English in school and at work. My father quit school after the 8th grade so that he could work to help take care of his family. He was a hard worker and a talented artist, but I rarely saw him reading anything, not even the newspaper. Most parents expect the public school system to teach their children to read. I’m shocked when I hear people say, for example, their child is in first grade and still can’t read! Reading to your children early and often, and letting them “catch” you reading, is the best way to teach your child to read.

Give your kids a good reason to learn how to read, and they will. When my oldest son, Alex, was between 2 and 3 years old, my husband worked as a field service rep. He was home about 1 week out of every 4. He liked to play a computer game called “King’s Quest” that required the player to read something on the screen, then type a response or make his avatar do what the text said to do. Alex loved to play that game with his dad, and when his dad was out of town, he wanted me to play. I was working full time, going to school part time, and raising a 2 year old basically on my own, so I often told him he would have to play by himself. (Besides, I had no idea how to play the game.) He would cry and beg me to play, and I would often read to him what the screen said, but then I would tell him, “If you want to play that game when Daddy isn’t here, you’ll have to learn how to read.” And that’s exactly what he did! Before Alex was 4, he could read on his own. One night we were at the airport waiting for his dad and there was a newspaper on the seat next to me. Alex stood facing the seat, leaning on it with his arms folded, reading the paper. A man nearby chuckled and said, “That’s so cute; it looks like he’s actually reading it.” I was so offended that he would think my child couldn’t read! I didn’t realize at the time that reading at such a young age was not the norm.

But why is it not the norm? My youngest son, Jake, didn’t learn to read nearly as early, but certainly was reading by Kindergarten. He had three people helping him, so he never had a reason to learn to read (or walk) as early as Alex did. There is a term in psychology called “Learned Helplessness,” which is a perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation. If someone is always doing things for you, you never learn to do it on your own. For example, suppose you ask your son to put away his toys, but he takes longer than you want or doesn’t do it as well as you want, so you do it yourself. Or you see that he’s struggling to read the cereal box before pouring himself a bowl, so you grab the box out of his hand and pour the cereal for him, because you’re in a hurry. Eventually he learns that no matter what he does, it’s not good enough for you, so why should he even try? And that carries over to his school work and, eventually, his adult life—unless he figures out that it’s not his problem, it’s yours. (The problem is that you’re not patient.)

Patience can be very difficult, especially when you’re watching your child struggle to learn something. When I would read to my kids at bedtime, I would point to a word and they would read the word instead of me. At first, it was words like “and” “if” “cat” and so on, eventually working up to the entire sentence, and then the whole story. You have to be patient, though, and let your child struggle with sounding it out and making mistakes, waiting for them to figure it out. (Meanwhile, you want to rush through the story and put him to bed, so you can have “me” time.) Of course, you have to also provide him with the tools to figure things out on his own, but if you always take over, he’ll never figure it out. Give him small achievements, eventually building up to bigger achievements, so that he knows he can do it without your help.

Knowing how to do a thing and wanting to do it don’t always go hand in hand. If your child hates to read, find out why that is. Maybe the problem isn’t that he can’t read, but that he’d rather be outside playing soccer than inside reading. Perhaps if he reads a chapter of a book on soccer skills tonight, he can go outside and practice those skills tomorrow. Maybe there is a movie that he wants to go see. Give him the book of that movie to read. Maybe what he’s reading is way too easy or way too hard for his skill level. Don’t just hand him a book to read. Sit with him and have him read it to you—you’ll see then if it’s too hard or too easy. And ask questions about the book to strengthen his reading comprehension skills.

Whatever the reason, work together to find the solution. Reading is not instinctive, it’s a skill. Like any skill your children learn, it takes time (yours and theirs!) and lots of practice and patience. Don’t just expect the public school system to raise your child for you—you might not like the results!

‎We also have a problem of technical illiteracy in the US, for which technology itself is partially to blame. (More of that “learned helplessness” I mentioned earlier.) But that’s a topic for another article.

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” — Alvin Toffler. (Alvin didn’t consider the part of learning that requires you to be able to read.)

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