Monday, October 31, 2016

The Literacy Crisis In Our Schools

“Can you learn me to read?” this middle-aged white gentleman asked me.

His questioned stunned me, and I didn’t quite know how to answer his question. I was the Project Coordinator for a tutorial program “Juntos Podemos-Together, We Can” at a local library. We operated year-round and targeted youth ages 3-18, but I would occasionally tutor adults if they needed assistance in college courses or GED preparation. However, his request was out of my wheelhouse. Frankly, I was intimidated, and it was my first time meeting an adult who admitted not being able to read.

Where would I begin? How do you teach an adult to read? What resources do you use?

I’ve often wondered what happened to that man. Instead of attempting to teach him how to read, I referred him to an adult education provider.

But he was an anomaly, right?

Later, I took my passion for education into the classroom and became a middle school math teacher. My final year was spent teaching grade 4 core subjects. This teaching career spanned three Title I campuses where I taught hundreds of students and attended countless hours of professional development. Despite my background, it wasn’t until I left teaching that I truly understood the impact that reading had on other subjects.

Jonathan Kozol, an award-winning author and nationally-known public education advocate, defines "literacy'' in the United States as being able to read at the 10th-grade level, and any individual who reads at the fifth-grade level or below is no longer literate.

Why is that important?

It was during the Early Education forum that I learned that the older gentleman who wanted to learn how to read was not an anomaly, and I learned some startling statistics.

"About one in five adults in Tarrant County cannot read at a fourth grade level. An additional 28 percent lack sufficient reading skills to earn a meaningful wage. This translates to almost half of the adult population in Tarrant County that does not have the literacy skills needed to get and keep a job that will pay a livable wage. More than half of the adults who are unable to read at a basic level GREW UP and ATTENDED SCHOOL RIGHT HERE in Tarrant County. They speak English but are not functionally literate. (United Way)"

"Fourteen percent of the adult population, cannot read materials written at an eighth grade level or fill out a job application. (Tarrant Literacy Coalition)"

We, the participants, were informed that functionally illiterate people are primarily lower level employees. In fact, their inability to read sufficiently is largely invisible to their employers until they are left a note to perform a task or given a performance evaluation which they must read. 

This was my Aha! moment.

In public education, particularly in Title I schools, there's a lot of talk about the lack of parental involvement. Sadly, there's little to no discussion about the parents' level of educational attainment and the implication it has on their child's educational career. Furthermore, these facts were not presented during any professional development or faculty meeting that I've ever attended. Provided this information, I believe schools would engage parents differently and show them activities that they can incorporate at home without it feeling intimidating.

Here's the unadulterated truth:
ILLITERACY IS PASSED ALONG BY PARENTS who cannot read or write. Children are affected by GENERATIONAL illiteracy (Mission Literacy). Studies show that only 53 percent of children between the ages of 3 and 5 are read to daily by a relative. Unfortunately, that percentage falls for children who are raised in families with incomes below the poverty line. When parents can’t read their children are at a disadvantage. Parents who lack adequate literacy skills are less likely to earn a living wage. Thus, studies have shown that children living in poverty hear and speak fewer words, are less likely to have access to books, and enter school several years behind their wealthier peers. Consequently, these children may never catch up to their peers. Eventually, these children may become parents causing the cyclical nature of illiteracy to continue.


The Center for Public Policy Priorities publishes the Texas Education Score Card which gives grades to Texas counties based on various education milestones. The graphic below contains results from Tarrant County's 2015 data.

Why is 3rd grade an important educational milestone?

Third grade is the first year where public school children take a standardized test under No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and soon to be implemented Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to monitor their progress before they transition to "reading to learn" in fourth grade. Prior to this stage, children in preschool through kindergarten were in the “getting ready to read” stage, followed by “learning and practicing beginning reading" in first grade, and "learning to read with fluency" in second and third grade. Therefore, these years are critical in establishing a foundation for reading. Once students enter fourth grade and transition into middle school or junior high, they begin to engage in "adolescent reading" where they are required to read independently with the goal of comprehending the text and obtaining content knowledge. In these grades, they are more likely to move to departmentalized classes, encounter instruction that does not follow a narrative pattern, and receive little to no reading support (Salinger, 2011).

The Cradle to College to Career Pipeline

The cradle to career pipeline is the trajectory to on-time graduation and college and career readiness. The implications for low literacy attainment means that students will have a difficult time meeting the academic demands of high school and they will be ill-prepared for college and the workforce. The American Diploma Project found that many students who graduate high school and enter college require some remediation prior to taking freshmen level courses. Employers of recent high school graduates have noted that many are not prepared for entry level positions due to a lack of basic literacy skills. What began as the achievement gap will become the "employment gap" and "wage gap" due to the global economy's demand for a more educated workforce.

In addition to being ill-prepared for college or career, students who do not read proficiently by the third grade are more likely to drop out of school. Forty-seven percent of prisoners were high school dropouts. The Department of Justice states, "The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure." 

Although I presented data on Tarrant County, low literacy achievement is not limited to Tarrant County, a particular school district, or Texas for that matter. Illiteracy and functional illiteracy is a national problem.

So, how did we get here? Not only how did we get here, but why did we let the numbers get so high? And what can be done to halt this frightening trend?

First and foremost, I'm a firm believer that there is no substitute for a parent. Parents are their child's first teacher, first coach, first cheerleader, first advocate, etc. We are their cornerstone; therefore, it's imperative that we equip our children with the tools necessary to be successful in life. Research has shown that individuals with higher levels of literacy had greater income, were more likely to remain abreast of current events, more likely to be civically engaged, and most importantly read to their children. In a wonderful world, all children would be born into families who could provide all of these experiences and more. However, as Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill pointed out in Creating an Opportunity Society, children aren't born with an equal chance at the American Dream. Many of these gaps begin at or before birth.

Therefore, schools can help close some of these opportunity gaps by providing parents with continuing education courses or information to help parents further their education. This will not only serve as a catalyst for self-improvement, but also a resource to improve families' economic opportunities and provide positive examples for children. Also, schools can include a list of free or nominal fee family friendly activities happening within their city in the school's newsletters on a regular basis. Many people believe that visiting the museum, attending a theatrical production, or other venues are expensive for the family when these can actually be quite inexpensive if you know certain dates to attend. Some opportunity gaps are simply"exposure gaps," and that exposure can provide students with a frame of reference for things they may read about later in life.

In addition, when hiring teachers, principals should know what skills they need in an educator to move the quality of education forward on their campus. This means that holding a certificate in teaching is not enough. Does the individual possess the background that your campus needs? If not, does your district provide the level of training and support that is necessary for growing and developing teachers and students? Unfortunately, as I learned when I taught fourth grade, knowing how to read and write is not enough to teach someone how to read and write. Literacy strategies should be embedded at every grade level in every content area to support literacy development and teacher mobility.

Years ago, I attended an Understanding by Design (UbD) session at a teacher conference, and the facilitator presented this 40-40-40 rule.
  • 40 days - Students are taught certain concepts to prepare for a unit test.
  • 40 weeks - Students are taught material during the course of the school year and then they take the annual state assessment.
  • 40 years - Students are provided information that's supposed to last a lifetime.
Here's an example of a lesson plan where students are expected master making inferences and drawing conclusions in 6 days from reading nonfiction texts.

Here's an example of a 10-day unit where students will be taught appreciating literary nonfiction and drama.

According to the UbD facilitator, students are given bits of information without a deep understanding because the framework requires teachers to cover certain topics within a limited period of time. Therefore, students learn enough to pass a unit test or a state test, but the content knowledge does not remain over a lifetime. The two lifetime skills that he mentioned were the ability to read and numeracy skills (basic math: add, subtract, multiply, and divide). Needless to say, many adults struggle with both because they weren't given the proper foundation and a deep understanding. As a nation, we need to look at the current literacy teaching methods to see where we are missing the mark.

Finally, improving literacy requires all of us: parents, relatives, neighbors, community activists, educators, philanthropists, and policymakers. There's this buzzword sweeping the nation, collective impact, and a Tarrant County school district has developed a partnership between its local municipality and a large employer to address early childhood education and literacy. Each community is different, but we each of us can do our part whether it's volunteering at a school, having children read at church, providing books at the barbershop, attending school board meetings and challenging issues affecting our children, funding programs in those critical needs schools, or drafting legislation that will produce quality education for all students.


Annie E. Casey Foundation
Begin to Read
The Learning Center of North Texas
Tarrant Literacy Coalition
United Way of Tarrant County
Salinger, T. (2011). Addressing the “Crisis” in Adolescent Literacy. Retrieved from

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