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Functional Literacy for All

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For the last two years, I've traveled across the country as the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. It was an honor and a pleasure to hold such an esteemed position, and also an education in our country's attitudes about reading and the well-being of our children. The bottom line for me is that there is a reading crisis in this country and that it threatens to get worse.

A CIA fact sheet proudly proclaims that the United States is 99 percent literate. That sounds good, but it's meaningless. What's important is functional literacy and whether Americans read well enough to handle their own affairs in an era where the competition is global and the intellectual demands on reading are at their highest. An increasing number of children who go into their last years of high school are functional illiterates -- clearly not ready for college and rarely in a position to compete for meaningful jobs.

The good news is that America wants to solve its reading problem. As National Ambassador, as a father, and as a Black man who's been around a long, long time, I think I have a solution: Involve the people who need it most.

Let's teach caretakers and young parents how to read and interact linguistically with babies and toddlers. Let's carefully explain to grandmothers and uncles that they have a gift to give to their children -- the gift of functional literacy! The trouble is that not many people believe in the power or willingness of the people living in language poverty to help themselves.

Language poverty? In published findings, educational specialists ascertain that too many children are lagging in language skills when they begin the educational process. What's more, the language environment in which they are raised, and in which they experience the primary introduction to language (think Piaget and Lev Vygotsky) is in itself impoverished. To put it bluntly, the language a child hears and uses in the home, is going to be the major determinant of academic performance in school, not simply what they learn in the classroom.

Imagine a five year old going to school with a useful vocabulary of some 4,000 words trying to learn at the same pace that another child, one with a working vocabulary of some 15,000 words is learning. It's going to be, at best, difficult. And according to Dr. Leslie Morrow of Rutgers only 17 percent of children who start that far behind ever catch up.

Most of the language that children hear in the home comes from the workplace. Teachers talk about their school days, auto mechanics talk about the cars and problems of repairing them, Fedex drivers talk about their routes and their troubles delivering or picking up packages, etc. Kids hear these stories, hear words being used in different ways, and continue their own development accordingly.

But consider the child in a family that has suffered decades of unemployment or underemployment. The language input is remarkably sparse. These children don't hear nearly as many words as the offspring of professionals and get less of an opportunity to actually use words they might hear in school. And if they can't read by the age of 8, their chances of graduating high school have significantly diminished, as well as their chances of going on to college. For these kids the upward path to prosperity and happiness, once the backbone of the American dream, is all but gone.

Why are our politicians and community leaders looking the other way? Why are they blaming teachers or changes in curricula? Because they lack faith in the very communities they serve and are afraid of either being accused of racism, or of blaming the poor, or of what use racists might make of such a self-help program. But clearly the best solution to functional illiteracy is found within the aware and active community.

There are already some small programs designed to increase the language base of inner city children. Geoffrey Canada at Harlem Children's Zone has one, and there are others dotted around the country. But they are not enough. We need to turn the occasional and often isolated efforts into a broad, openly discussed, national policy.

At the Every Child a Reader Foundation, and in conjunction with the Library of Congress, I am trying to start a community Dialogic Reading Center in New York City with the hope that it can be promoted as a national model. American educators recognize the problems leading to functional illiteracy, and understand how to solve most of them. We are hesitant in our dealing with the disadvantaged, true, but I go back to the good news that this is a problem Americans want to solve. What better news can we have?