Literacy begins at home. Speaking and reading to children from birth improves their chances of academic success a thousandfold.

The knee-jerk definition of literacy is “the ability to read and write.”

This is an unsatisfactory definition because the ability to read and write exists on a spectrum.

At one level, literacy is the ability to read highway notices and sign one’s name to a legal document.

At another level, literacy is the ability to read a challenging novel like Tolstoy’s War and Peace with interest and understanding and to write a critical review of it for an academic publication.

Most working adults can get along at a level of literacy that falls somewhere between.

This site recognizes four levels of literacy: Functional, Basic, Proficient, and Advanced.

Not all children will achieve the same level of literacy. The level that a child can be expected to achieve depends upon factors such as upbringing, interests, and intellectual ability.

In previous generations, literacy was not the necessity it is in the twenty-first century. In this period of history, adults need to progress at least to the level of Basic Literacy to function well in our information-based society.

Ideally, all children who receive eight or more years of formal schooling would reach the level of Basic Literacy. In fact, close to half the children who begin school at the age of five or six will fail to become fluent readers.

Before schools were available to all children, parents who could read taught their children to read. In the twenty-first century, when public education is universal but not uniformly effective, parents need to reclaim their role as their child’s first reading teacher.

Today’s parents have been persuaded that reading should be left to the experts. Yet, large numbers of children manage to leave school without mastering the skills of Basic Literacy. Three of every ten children who begin school will drop out without completing high school. Of those who stay to graduate, only about thirty percent read at the Basic or Proficient level.

Parents can prepare their children for reading success before they get to school by making the most of their preschool years.

Our public schools are still the best hope for a just society, but they have become political battlegrounds. Corporate interests color educational practice. Teachers are often limited in their choice of the most effective teaching methods.

Do not interpret these remarks as an attack on public education. US public schools remain the most important guardian of national social stability. However, no school—public or private—can be all things to all children.

There are approximately 100,000 public schools in the United States. Some have better resources and administrations than others. Some schools provide better language instruction than others.

The current trend in education focuses on technology and vocational training. This shift in priorities has affected instruction in reading, writing, and basic grammar—and not for the good.

Parents who want their children to achieve a level of literacy that will enable them to thrive in school and in life must involve themselves in their early education. Acquaint yourself with the levels of literacy described on this site. Pay attention to your child’s language experience in their preschool years. Monitor their reading and writing progress when they get to school. Regardless of your own level of education or the amount of time you have available, you can do much to insure your children against reading failure.

L-1 Functional or Survival Literacy
L-2 Basic Literacy
L-3 Proficiency Literacy
L-4 Advanced Literacy.

M. J. Maddox, PhD 
is the American English Doctor.