The ability to read may be fundamental to “more advanced forms of human thinking” (Vygotsky in Fischer, 1986/1987), yet, 60 million American adults are functionally illiterate (Kozol, 1985). More than 72 million adults in the US (about 1/3 of the population) have not completed High School (Harvard University Graduate School of Education Alumni Bulletin, 1989); and, according to the last national testing, 76 % of all fourth graders, 72% of all eighth graders and 66% of all twelfth graders are not reading “proficiently” — i.e., at grade level (Ed. Week, 4/95). About 1 million students drop out of school each year (Purcell-Gates & Dahl, 1991). Of those who graduate, 20-40% are functionally illiterate. The cost of US students repeating a grade in school because of poor reading skill is 2 billion dollars (Business Week Special Report, Sept. 8, 1988). [see chart]
Elizabeth Dole, US Department of Labor Secretary, reported in her 1989 "State of the Work Force Address" that 70% of High School graduates cannot write a letter of application for a job. The US Department of Education reports (1989) that 30 % of all unskilled, 29 % of all semiskilled, and 11 % of all professional and managerial employees are functionally illiterate. (Harvard University Graduate School of Education Alumni Bulletin, 1989, 33).
[August 19th, 2004 update: I heard a report on CNN yesterday that reported the new numbers and it was 68% for high school students. The odds are against kids. If they are not reading by 2nd or 3rd grade the system let's them fend for themselves. It is not only the poor or the underpredicted (based on parent SES, etc.).]
Illiteracy is tied to a cycle of poverty or low-income status, undereducation, dependency (welfare), poor health and crime. For those who cannot read or write, access to education and good jobs is limited. There is a constraint on their social climb no matter how industrious. Socially, the illiterate are disenfranchised. A person who is illiterate, or even functionally illiterate, may have little or no voice in the democratic process. In many ways, others decide what is best for him, and he may become resigned to this. He is unaware of the great events of history through the richness of literature — the drama of human life on a larger scale. He is, to some extent, unaware of himself in the context of an evolving world culture he cannot understand. He is oppressed, in no mild sense. With an increasing rate of social evolution and the increasing potential in every human being — not to mention the reality that jobs and other opportunities are becoming more and more dependent on literate abilities — what was formerly the privilege of the few has become the birthright of the masses. (See some of the Bahá'í contexts for this birthright: 1 2 )
Historically, large numbers of children have had difficulty learning to read in school (Swartz, 1988). Cazden (1992) presents us with the following question, "Why don't the language learning capacities that work so miraculously at home, work the same magic in school?" She portrays the "contrast between learning at home and at school" as "disheartening.” "There is no question that young children's remarkable success [on first-language acquisition] contrasts dramatically with considerably less remarkable success of much language learning — reading as well as writing — in school."
Based on the recognition of critical windows of
in early brain development, my doctoral research project is exploring
learning processes which appear to preempt the difficulties children
learning to read in school. I have trained approximately seventy
parents to teach their preschoolers to read. Developmentally
methods which children experience as play have enabled three-year-olds
to read as well as second graders in less than four months, as their
work with them for only five to ten minutes per day (in addition to
regular reading activities, such as bedtime stories). It seems
almost any three-year-old can easily learn to read through this
Your suggestions and comments are welcome. If you are interested
in learning more about the new approaches we are synthesizing, or you
thoughts or questions you would like to share, please contact me by
email. Thank you for your interest and consideration.
Greg Kagira-Watson, M.S.Ed., Ed.M.