SACRAMENTO — I am a volunteer soldier in the war for literacy.
When I heard reports that many of our children lacked the ability to read, I gladly enlisted to be a classroom teacher's aide. Currently, I work six hours a week in first- and third-grade classrooms at Bear Flag Elementary School, which is in the Sacramento City Unified School District.
What I've seen really worries me. Students are being forced to struggle with high-minded reading texts that have little to do with their daily lives. And well-meaning teachers can't help them because they are being compelled to teach cookie-cutter curriculum and worry about tests.
As a consequence, I've seen many would-be readers--some very bright children--give up on books and literature as early as the first grade.
I love reading. It has been a vital part of my family, my faith and my life. My grandfather was the president of a small Southern college; my daughter is a journalist who works in the Sacramento Bureau of The Times. As a single mother--before it was common--I worked many years managing a bookstore. More recently, I have volunteered at the Discovery Museum History Center in Sacramento, where I've dressed up in period costume to read to young audiences.
Although I am not a trained teacher or a reading specialist, I have always had a healthy respect for the importance of reading in young people's lives.
Hence my work at Bear Flag Elementary. In the third grade, I work only with so-called problem readers. I help them with phonetics.
When I'm working with first-graders, I deal with readers of all abilities, one on one. At the teachers' direction, I time each student as he or she reads out of a series of books ranked according to difficulty. I then mark N for "not satisfactory," NQ for "not quite," S for "correct, but reading slowly" and, finally, a check mark for satisfactory. The same material is repeated until a check mark is achieved.
This work has really opened my eyes. I won't soon forget the day Ariadne, a very intelligent first-grader who was great in math, picked up a book and closed it with the pronouncement that she was not going to learn to read. She has since stuck to her statement. My fear is that she and some otherwise capable children will wither academically and drop out somewhere along the line, all out of frustration.
I put part of the blame on the textbooks themselves. These volumes are beautiful compilations of slick paper, colorful series of illustrated books and workbooks. Visually, the products are superb and well worth their great cost. However, I've found their actual application to children to be questionable.
These books tell stories mostly about adults and adult problems. Indeed, children are not central to the material. One story, for example, presents third-graders with the weighty quandary of whether to dedicate land for farming or real estate development. Is this realistic for an 8-year-old? Other stories on racism, which can be of vital importance, are also presented on such an adult level that they miss their mark.
The vocabulary is also very adult. In fact, it struck me as oddly out of place. No one would argue against the goal of building a good vocabulary. But do we have to start drilling students on relatively complex words in kindergarten? When I saw the word "honeysuckle" used in a kindergarten vocabulary list, I wondered what it could actually mean to a child that young.
The Drawback of High Goals
While some would argue that the greater the challenge, the greater the progress, I've seen that backfire. Set the goal too high, and discouragement and depression will defeat academic progress. High goals are fine; unattainable ones are counterproductive.
To be sure, these ambitious goals are fine for a small segment of the school population. I've found that some children read the material fluently and with comprehension. Generally, these children speak only English at home and have supportive parents who don't hesitate to contact the teachers when problems develop.
Yet there's another segment--a very important one--for whom these assignments are as frustrating as can be. They are the immigrant students who are part of the rich ethnic mix at Bear Flag, where minorities make up the greater portion of the student population.
These immigrant students--Asian, Latino, Russian--come from homes where the primary language is something other than English. To survive, these enterprising youngsters learn a patois of English to communicate with their peers. Then they go to school and are confronted with the reading textbook that uses a language totally different from that. Thus, they have to learn three languages--their native tongue; everyday, conversational English; and the official English of the educational system.
The result? For some, it can be a sense of confusion and defeat. As Tino said to me one day: "I can't learn to read." I asked him who told him such a thing, and his answer broke my heart: his mother.