Children and Literacy

I read an article today that really hit a nerve with me. It was about not teaching kids to read, and that kids are self motivated, and will teach themselves to read because the rest of society is also literate. Children want to be like everyone else and will just teach themselves.

The notion is so patently absurd and the theory is demonstrably false. However, it hit a nerve with me because I am somebody who has years of experience teaching English and English as a Second Language (ESL) to adults and children. I have seen first hand how children and adults struggle with reading and the English language.

This is not to say there are very self motivated kids with great parents who do self directed learning all the time. We home school and most of our learning is self directed. Some things my child can teach herself. Other things, she will need help with some instruction for her to be able to learn. I, myself, learned to read basic sentences before I was in kindergarten, but I was taught to read, make no mistake. I wanted to learn, sure. I was motivated and enjoyed reading and story time. As I grew, I taught myself vocabulary and where to find info on grammar rules, etc. And many other kids self-teach many things.

But let’s pull our heads out of the clouds a minute because first of all, not all kids are or have the ability to be home schooled. Second, not all parents stay home. Out of the ones who do, not all of those parents are motivated to sit with their kids and help them discover their own learning. Not all parents care. Let’s just say that right out. This uber dreamy theory of a bunch of well rounded kids, with parents who don’t struggle with money, who are all learning through play and teaching each other how to read… Well, gosh, even though I don’t believe in white privilege, it certainly smacks of it.

Can you imagine inner city schools in Chicago, with all these mindful kids (who are growing up in single parent households, whose single parent may or may not be addicted to drugs, living in the projects, and could very well be illiterate themselves…) living on government lunches, all sitting down teaching themselves how to read? You can imagine, sure. But that’s it. Because if this theory had any truth to it, then why are inner city low income schools graduating kids out of the system who can’t read? Why did they not teach themselves? They are growing up in a literate society- everyone has a Facebook page, just about. Everyone knows how to read, right? Wrong!

If your child is self motivated and is self directed and all that- great. That works for you. But the fact is, for the majority of children… the VAST majority of children, they need help with reading, comprehension, spelling, phonics, and rules of grammar. There is a point they reach where they “get it” and then learning becomes more self directed, rather than instructor led. Some kids will get there sooner than others- but many factors play into that why. And that is including their home life.

I’ve met kids who do not go home and do homework. They are failing in schools. They do not have good parents to guide them and help them. School is mandatory and social. They go home and they don’t eat meals because no one cares to prepare them. They are certainly self taught – but not in any lessons they would be learning in school. More like survival in the projects. If they even  make it to high school, it’s because the system passed them along.

I have met adults who can’t read and understand English also. Nevermind my immigrant students, from all over the world, who hired me to help them learn English and understand their reading and spelling. How about all that self-directed learning – how come they couldn’t figure it out? They had to hire a teacher. Because people have to be taught to read. But not getting too far away from my point- illiteracy is an invisible handicap that is bigger than most. Your basic functions depend on your ability to read, in most circumstances.

Once, I went shopping in Target, and it was around the Christmas season and the store was packed. I was killing time, actually and moseying through. As I ventured into the health and beauty section, I saw this weird guy looking, well, weird. I can’t pinpoint exactly what it was that stood out, but you know, he was looking all around, and acting fishy. I watched him for a minute, from afar, as I was going to turn him into security. I thought he was a creep. After a minute, I realized – this guy needed help. He was looking for an employee or someone to assist him. He kept motioning for people, and everyone ignored him.

He was tall and slim. His facial features were exaggerated – big lips and nose. I assumed he was hispanic, he wasn’t Eastern or American Indian. His clothes were slightly shabby. He didn’t stink, but he needed a hair cut and you know, he wasn’t terribly attractive. Just a random guy, looking very worn.

I slowly walked over to him, and he saw me looking and motioned for me, so I acknowledged. He couldn’t speak English. Which means he couldn’t read it either. (Why didn’t he just figure it out? Certainly he should be motivated, no?) This man is standing in the aisle with condoms and was holding several different products. Pepto Bismol, Preparation H, vitamins, Icy Hot, and a couple other things. He didn’t know what to buy. So here I am, improvising with sign language I made up on the spot. How to figure out what’s even wrong with the guy. After a couple of minutes of weird gesticulating on both our parts, I figure out this man needs cold/sinus medication. He’s not even in the right section. I bring him to the right section, show him the cold medications, and felt confident that I had helped him. I felt good about myself. He smiled, thanked me by nodding, and I went about my shopping.

A few minutes later, after I had gotten my items and was headed towards the front to check out, I passed back by that section again. There was that man again, and again, he was looking for help. Oh, lord. He saw me before I could help it and waved for me. This time, he was holding several boxes of cold and sinus and allergy meds. But because he couldn’t read, he didn’t know what to get. And as we all know, that we all take for granted, you have MANY options available for symptom relief. Whether it’s cold, sinuses, allergies, or whatever, there is no shortage of feel-better OTC meds. Now, I have to use my made up sign language to help this guy pick something. So, feeling rather goofy, I begin motioning for stuffy nose or runny nose. How to ask about being sick, versus allergies? I determine that in the middle of winter, seasonal allergies probably aren’t what’s getting to him. He is able to get the message to me that his sinuses are clogged, but no headaches or fever. So I pick him up some sinus stuff. I say a silent prayer that this man isn’t allergic to anything, and I hand him some Sudafed something or other. Again, he thanks me, shakes my hand, and walks off to pay.

That’s just one story. Being an ESL teacher, I have witnessed many struggles of people, all because they couldn’t read, or read well. They couldn’t figure out the rules of English grammar. My first ESL student was being passed over for promotions at work because he was misunderstanding so much. And this guy was really smart- not a stupid guy. And certainly motivated to learn!

The entire reason I began teaching ESL was because I was being forced to take a basic English class as part of my degree program in college, and it was at night. The class was filled with immigrants, all self motivated, trying to learn to read, write, and comprehend English. Well, the teacher was cheating! She wasn’t even teaching proper grammar rules! So much for the self directed learning theory! Why do we have a horrible literacy rate in our country? Educators failing students. Not because we don’t have enough people who want to know how to read. I confronted this teacher in front of her class, and decided there on the spot that I would teach, and I knew I would never cheat someone from their education again.

Illiteracy is a serious issue. You are handicapped in almost every area of your life. And I’m all for self-directed learning. But please, for the love of the future for your kids, understand that A) they will not learn in a vacuum, and you will be putting some input into teaching them, and B) some kids just struggle. It’s not for a lack of will or desire. English is hard. Please don’t leave them to their own devices, as this article suggests that some kids take as long as 14 to figure it out. That is just neglect. That is deliberately handicapping your child, who cannot read directions to cook, assemble things, follow instructions or directions, complete a form, sign things like medical or legal information, and the list goes on.

I think it is dangerous to suggest that children will just teach themselves because everyone else is doing it. Furthermore, that’s a dangerous principle to set in place for your kid’s self-directed learning. I distinctly recall being taught that just because everyone else is doing something doesn’t make it right… Therefore it stands to reason that kids can’t grasp the importance of reading, and just because everyone else is doing it, doesn’t mean they need to.

Please teach your kids. Or let someone else. Let them learn about history and science in a self-directed way, but recognize if they are falling behind in reading, and give them that boost.


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