21st-Century Literacy: Or, Why Kids GOTTA Read
I've had a lot of people ask how I managed to get my kids to be good readers. My experience won't be the same as any other parent's, because every child is different. Each of my four children had a different path toward reading, and we lucked out in that we don't have anyone with dyslexia or similar learning challenge. (Not that we didn't have our challenges, but I'll talk about that another time.)
Before sharing parts of our family's literacy journey, I want to establish why reading is so important to begin with, why I did a jig in the hall the first time I caught my son sneaking a book under his covers past bedtime.
I'm an avid reader, so of course as soon as I became a mom, I wanted to pass along my love of books to my children. That desire increased as I studied literacy statistics and learned just how important those skills are—far more important than they were even one generation ago.
Back then, the majority of jobs didn't even require a high school diploma and many jobs required little, if any, skills related to reading and writing. (Common sense, a solid work ethic, and a bit of brawn did the trick.)
In the 1950s, 60% of jobs were unskilled labor.* Today, unskilled labor accounts for only 20% of jobs. But there's a caveat: today, even blue-collar jobs require some level of literacy, and when the workers don't have it, entire industries suffer.
In a survey of the National Association of Manufacturers, 40% said they couldn't implement productivity improvements because their work force didn't have the reading, math, or communication skills the upgrades would require.
The modern world requires that we know how to read and write. Those aren't just a nice skills to have; they're vital for success. Consider that just about every job requires some kind of written communication, whether it's e-mail, reading a memo taped to a wall, or (more likely) something far more involved.
I have several friends (and this includes my husband) who, at times, do more writing at work than their job description implies. This includes stuff like writing reports, proposals, memos, team messages, e-mails (to superiors as well as team members), preparing presentations, and more. Two of my friends who are lawyers spend 12-hour work days, yep, writing.
(Side note: one of those lawyers is such a good writer that he's now the go-to guy at his firm for writing briefs and reports. Pain in the neck on the one hand, but it also means his mortgage will be paid off just before his 40th birthday.)
Aside from benefits like getting, oh, a job, literacy has huge effects on individuals and society.
It's not a surprise that children of mothers with poor literacy skills are likely to have poor literacy skills themselves. We know that parental involvement is big for students.
What we don't always realize is that when such support is lacking at home, it leads to a vicious cycle of poverty: an illiterate teen, possibly living in poverty herself, gets involved in drugs and other risky behavior, drops out of school, has a teen pregnancy, raises the child in poverty . . .
And the cycle continues with the next generation.
But get this: literacy skills even affect things like children's health. Studies have shown that kids with illiterate mothers tend to have poor nutrition, don't get to the doctor when they need to, and don't always get the care they need when they are at the doctor (hard to know what to ask when you don't understand basic health issues). These same children are less likely to ride in car seats or even have smoke detectors and fire extinguishers in the home.
At first some of that didn't make sense to me, until I realized that literacy has fingers in just about every pie of life. How did I learn about toddler nutrition, when to take my kidlets to the doctor, or how to install a car seat?
Oh, yeah. I read about those things. Even knowing what questions to ask of a doctor or pharmacist (or even being able to read a medicine label) is something those with poor literacy skills can't do.
A lot of problems go away when the mother in the home is educated: kids' grades go up, their chances for at-risk behavior drops, their health improves, and more.
Yes, I'm aiming this at moms, because we really do have so much power. (No pressure, right? Oy.) This means that yes, educating a woman is critical, even if she's "just" going to be a stay-at-home mom.
Aside from family-level issues, illiteracy has a huge price tag on the community. Consider a few numbers from 2003:
47% of adult welfare recipients have not graduated from high school.
70% of adult welfare recipients are not literate.
High-school drop-outs are 3X more likely to need public assistance than high-school graduates.
Illiterate adults are 6X times more likely to be hospitalized and are more likely to have heart disease, prostate cancer, and diabetes. (Again, if you can read, you're more likely to know about preventative care, treatments, and more.)
Prison inmates are often illiterate, and after release, they often return to prison. In one study, inmates who receive literacy training had a return rate of 20% instead of the 49% of their fellow inmates who did not receive similar training.
The conclusion of the study was that every dollar spent on education in prison is worth at least two dollars in the future reduction of crime. (You'd think that education would be a no-brainer, but only about 9% of inmates get literacy training.)
You could say I'm a tiny bit passionate about the topic, which is why I got somewhat panicky when my children didn't take to reading like fish to water. I did a lot of asking for advice, digging around, and I put on my detective cap to find some solutions. So far, the efforts have paid off.
Next week, I'll share some of our struggles and the tips I gleaned along the way for getting my kids to read.
*Literacy stats in this post are from the ProLiteracy America Report, 2003