As a society, we've always assumed that parents would provide food and shelter for their children, and the schools would teach them to read. As matters stand today, that assumption is no longer realistic. Instead, the evidence powerfully suggests that most of the children in America's schools today won't become lifelong readers and--to use a conservative estimate--that one out of four of them will scarcely learn to read at all. Given this reality, there's only one option for parents who want to be certain their children learn to read. They will have to teach them themselves.
Our nation is producing illiterates and semi-literates at a rate that should be frightening not just to parents, but to all of us as citizens. The number of illiterates in the United States is generally put at 27 million, but Jonathan Kozol, the author of "Illiterate America," believes that this figure falls short by more than half. Upward of 60 million adults, he estimates, "cannot read enough to understand the poison warnings on a can of pesticide or the antidote instructions on a can of kitchen lye; nor can they understand the warnings of the sedative effects of non-prescription drugs, handle a checking account, read editorials in a newspaper, nor read the publications of the United States Census, which persists in telling us with stubborn, jingoistic pride that 99.4% of all Americans can read and write."
Each year, the number of illiterates in the United States increases by 2 1/2 million. Slightly more than half of this number are immigrants. The rest--more than 1 million each year--are products of our schools.
What accounts for this calamitous record? I believe that the reading problems in our schools today--and, indeed, the related learning problems--are the direct consequence of a relatively new and universally utilized system of reading instruction that simply doesn't work.
Our troubles began in 1957, when the Soviets put Sputnik into orbit. Suddenly the United States was confronted with the unthinkable proposition that the Russians might outdistance us not only in scientific achievement but also in the conquest of space. In searching for answers, all eyes turned to education. If our society wasn't producing scientists who could put objects into space, then education was to blame. Reforms were in order.
With the new determination to create more effective schooling came a twofold government decision, first to get involved in education--primarily by offering financial support to the schools--and second, to make certain that the government was getting its money's worth.
Whatever alternatives might have been considered, that demand for "accountability" narrowed the choices to one: a system of instruction compatible with a method for testing its effectiveness. The system eventually adopted was based on an old production-efficiency proposition, that the need for a high level of skill development can be reduced if the tasks required of the worker are simplified. As in assembly-line operations, learning came to mean learning to perform a series of discrete skills.
With this system, educators could measure what children had learned and how much more they knew after the learning experience transpired than they had before. The results may have satisfied all the adults involved, but for the children it was a disaster.
The problem is that children can acquire thousands of skills, but the skills don't add up to reading. Though the system can teach the skills, it doesn't generate the dedication that ultimately makes a reader. It doesn't instill a sense of discovery, or unlock mysteries, or create the feeling of empathy, or do any of the other things reading does to produce pleasure.
There is little, if any, pleasure in completing these by-the-numbers tasks.
Children don't come to think of reading as intrinsically valuable. Instead, they associate it almost exclusively with the educational equivalent of manual labor, and they refuse to do it. A friend of mine, JoAnn Reinhardt, recently recalled the concern she felt as a young mother when her middle son, Paul, failed to learn to read in school. One day, in desperation, she sat Paul down and began to read aloud from a book about the American Revolution. Paul's interest immediately perked up--possibly because his father, Richard Reinhardt, writes on historical subjects--and within a short time he was reading the book himself. When his mother asked him why he had been unable to read in school, he replied, "Because the stuff they give us isn't interesting."