Illiteracy — Public Schools

A few years ago the Washington Post carried a series of articles on the failure of the local school system to teach students how to read and write. The reporter’s most stunning finding: more than a few high school seniors relied on their classmates to read the signs on the Metro bus so that they could take the right bus home.

About the same time there were press accounts deploring the general state of illiteracy in the nation. No one really knows its extent, but conservative estimates put the figure at 20 million functionally illiterate adults. Millions of other Americans have serious reading difficulties. The American Association of Junior Colleges has estimated that one-third to one-half of their new students have significant reading problems. As for writing, the situation is even worse.

It goes without saying that non-literacy is a devastating liability to persons in their employment, consumption and civic opportunities. And there is no reason, save lack of interest and will, for this nation to have such a human disaster in its midst.

Teaching children and adults how to read and write is not difficult. It requires no new discovery and no new equipment. It only requires priority.

Over twenty years ago I read about a program in Brazil that demonstrated how illiterate peasants could be taught to read in a matter of weeks. The developer of this particular method was a man named Paulo Freire who recognized that the precondition for its widespread adoption in the Third World was a modicum of democracy.

In our country, part of the leadership for literacy can come from outside the formal schooling institutions in the form of large daily metropolitan newspapers. Which brings me to the quiet, unpublicized effort by the Washington Post to assist local schools in using a program developed by the late Professor Anne Adams of Duke University called “Success in Beginning Reading and Writing.”

The Post’s representative, Mick Hauver, discovered that inner city children in Durham, North Carolina had dramatically improved their reading and writing abilities in a short period of time using Dr. Adams’ “Success” program. Three years ago, Hauver, Washington Post Publisher, Donald E. Graham, and former D.C. School Superintendent, Vincent Reed, persuaded several D.C. elementary schools (grades one to six) to adopt a pilot program. A recent evaluation report by the Superintendent (415 12th Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20004) claims the program is successful. Reading and writing improved faster in comparison with children in other reading exercises; the program is enjoyed by both students and teachers, and the motivation of the students is much higher.

Just what is this technique of Dr. Adams’? Read her own words: “Success in Beginning Reading and Writing is based on the belief that people should be taught to read and to write about the kinds of materials that are and will be available to them in the future — fiction and non-fiction books, textbooks, newspapers, catalogues, maps, poems, magazines, telephone books, letters, brochures, and so on — in their natural form.” She rejected the customary instructional books (“basal readers”) that schools use. By the end of-the year, every first grader, she wrote, will be reading or will have read “library books, subject-area textbooks, newspapers, catalogues, magazines, comic books” and what’s more “every first grader will have written many different kinds of stories.”

Mr. Hauver says another benefit of this program to school systems is that “it’s cheaper, because the number of basal readers can be dramatically reduced. The cost of a single basal series far exceeds the cost of the newspapers and magazines used in the “Success” program, and these savings are direct.”

In its backup role to the schools, the Post has donated the newspapers, provided magazines at a discount, paid for the teacher workshops and many of the teacher texts. Naturally, Donald Graham tells me he is “quite proud” of this initiative and he is now “trying to spread the program to adults who have trouble reading.”

Some major newspapers are failing and newspaper circulation is dwindling — certainly on a per capita basis. Newspapers want more readers. So in the long run the Post’s literacy support endeavors may gain more paid readers for its newspaper. If there has ever been anything close to enlightened corporate self-interest, this may be it.

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