07/19/2011 10:58 am ET Updated Sep 18, 2011

The Right To Read

It is almost a nightly ritual now -- the airways filled with scenes of angry, demanding and sometimes victorious crowds wanting change to happen. I missed one of the most hopeful demonstrations, however. Recently, while visiting Cape Town, South Africa, the former education adviser for the South African Bank told me that thousands of young students, perhaps as many as 15,000, had marched through the city's streets, demanding the right to learn to read.

They wanted their school libraries to be stocked with books and a teacher assigned as a librarian for every school. I observed this compulsion to learn and read on a visit to the Vulindlela Reading Club in Langa, a township right outside of Cape Town. Children as young as 4 and up to age 11 were spending their Saturday mornings in a program coordinated by the Project for the Study of Alternative Education at the University of Cape Town where they received extra help on learning to read in both Xhosa and English. They are lucky to be there. More than half of South African children are behind in reading skills.

The idea that being able to read is a "right" stems from the country's constitution, which focuses heavily on the rights of the people in the aftermath of years of powerlessness under apartheid. The students who marched challenged adults who now hold power, demanding that these adults take responsibility for creating the conditions that will make their right to read possible.

In the United States, as developed and wealthy as it is, more than 80 percent of children in low-income families are not proficient in reading. I listen, I talk to people, I read what's going on in policy circles, but rarely do I find any sympathy for a public demand for the right to read, as the South African students showed. By contrast, we are a society that talks more about the responsibilities of individuals and less about acting for the common good.

We know better though. The research on what it takes for children to learn to read tells us that it is a collective endeavor and includes: parents, other family members, and adults who provide books at home, read to children, and nurture a love of reading; quality early childhood development; access to health and social services; and teachers who are competent to teach early reading skills. Yet, in the United States many of our poorest children are on their own, lacking these kinds of opportunities.

How can we all work together to respond to the 'demand' that every child read well, certainly by the end of 3rd grade? In South Africa and in the United States, it is the adults who need to mobilize around helping children learn to read. Even in the present fiscal climate, there is much that schools and communities can do together to address the problem.

First and most important, we must understand that helping poor children to read is a shared responsibility. It is the first step toward preparing the next generation to take over. Thus, it is not just the responsibility of the family or the school. Rather, it is a challenge we all share.We need a culture that organizes around the "right" of all children to learn to read. That kind of culture, thankfully, is evident in the local community school movement.

More and more communities have collaborative structures where leaders from schools, local government, non-profit organizations, health institutions, higher education, the faith-based community, and neighborhood groups join together and build a culture of shared problem solving and learning opportunities for children. These communities -- numbering more than 50 and ranging from Tulsa to Oakland, from Lincoln to Cincinnati, from Peoria to Chicago -- are learning that collaboration is the only way to develop sustained supports for poor children, such as those needed for learning to read.

Without marching through the streets, people have come together to help poor children, working from a base of community schools. They collect books for poor children through the joint efforts of faith based institutions, local businesses, health agencies, and non-profit institutions; organize peer teaching so that older children read to younger ones; focus on reading as part of parenting education, parent leadership, and adult education classes; involve citizens as readers for young children and reading tutors; improve teaching in early childhood programs and in our elementary schools; and, make sure children receive vision testing.

Community schools ease the transition between early childhood programs and traditional classrooms. This is a big step for young children and their parents, but seldom do they get help in making it. Moreover, community school leaders are a bridge to the wider advocacy and policy communities concerned with the education of poor children.

While we may hesitate about declaring that children have the "right" to read, what we cannot dispute is that it is our shared responsibility to create the conditions that enable them to read.