Now that US public education is entering a phase of even more uncertainty and confusion, parents of young children who want to bring them up to a level of Basic Literacy by their thirteenth birthday need to get busy. Parents who want their children to acquire fluency in reading and writing during the early grades must begin the process before they go to school.
And once their children are in elementary school, parents must monitor their school progress with continual informal testing at home. They cannot rely on school grades as a true measure of achievement. Teachers differ in how they grade. Some grade only according to academic criteria. Others grade on such things as effort and a pleasant disposition.
As for standardized testing, it’s not only overused, it is also overrated as a means of determining what a child knows or is able to do.
The International Reading Association offers this depressing summary of recent research findings:
The number of secondary school students who lack literacy skills is not inconsequential: Over 6 million U.S. students in grades 8–12 are struggling readers (Joftus, 2002). One in four adolescents cannot read well enough to identify the main idea in a passage or to understand informational text (Kamil, 2003). ACT, a leading producer of college admission tests, reports that approximately 50% of high school graduates in 2005 did not have the reading skills they needed to succeed in college (Arenson, 2005).
The IRA and other educational entities look at such findings and decide that what is needed is more literacy coaches in high school.
I don’t think that’s the answer at all.
My solution to the problem of widespread reading deficiencies at every level of education is to make more effective use of Grades K-8.
“Literacy” classes do not belong in high school.
Teachers K-8 need to take responsibility for the fact that half or more of their students go to high school without having achieved a level of Basic Literacy. All teachers, not just the English teachers, can be expected to have attained a high level of literacy along with their other professional qualifications. If they haven’t, they shouldn’t be teaching. If they have, it is their job—regardless of the subject they teach—to model and require the use of Standard English in the classroom. There’s no place in our schools for the history or math teacher who tells his classes that he doesn’t care how they spell words as long as he can figure out what they mean.
Unfortunately, there are teachers who do just that kind of thing.
As long as large numbers of thirteen-year-olds are being allowed to pass to high school classes without mastering the skills of basic literacy, parents must supplement the work of the elementary schools.
What I call “Basic Literacy” corresponds to what is categorized as “proficiency level” on the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) exams. This is a level of literacy that would enable a person to succeed at most reading and writing tasks required in twenty-first century daily life.
The English speaker who has achieved a level of Basic Literacy can do the following:
Write a handwritten note that the recipient can read without struggling to decipher the letters or the meaning.
Spell the most common words in everyday vocabulary without digital help.
Use a dictionary to check the spelling, meaning, and pronunciation of unfamiliar words.
Know how to speak and write a standard dialect of English in addition to the dialect spoken at home.
Know how to find information in books as well as on a computer.
Read for enjoyment.
Have a general notion of US history and the US form of government.
Have a general acquaintance with the history of English and its literature.
Have a general notion of world geography, history, literature, religion, and the natural world.
Be able to think critically about statements made in different contexts, such as advertising, entertainment, news reporting, and writing from an earlier period.
School children who have the mental ability to use a cellphone and play video games can be expected to achieve a level of Basic Literacy by the age of thirteen. It’s the minimum level of literacy that should be in place before a student is permitted to pass to high school. It would be a lifeline for the million youngsters who drop out of school every year without completing high school.
The way things are at present, parents cannot afford to accept report card grades or standardized test scores as proof that their child is literate. They must monitor their children’s schoolwork, supplement it as needed, and test their children frequently at home.