Illiteracy Begins and Ends at Home

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This summer, I had the privilege of teaching journalism to a girl I doubt I will ever forget. I was struck by her confidence and vibrant personality. But she refused to do her work. It was not until she broke down and told me her biggest struggles that I understood why. As a high school senior, she was reading and writing at a 9th grade level. Somewhere down the road something went very wrong with her education. I think it began at home.


Watching Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, I am reminded of my student, who, like Precious, is struggling with sub-par literacy. For Precious, literacy is a literal escape; without it, she can’t advocate for herself. Once the world of literacy opened up to her, she finds her voice, first writing in her journal and then speaking out against her abusers. Like my student, Precious’ education did not begin at home—like it should have. Clearly, Precious' abusive mother didn’t care about her daughter’s education: “School won’t help you none,” she tells her, “you need to go down to the welfare.” I wonder if her character’s contempt for school stemmed from her own illiteracy.

In real life, that wouldn’t be so far-fetched. According to the REACH Education Foundation, a parent's literacy level is one of the most significant predictors of a child's future literacy. Bottom line: The children of illiterate parents are much more likely to drop out of school. It is at home where children learn their first words, are exposed to their first books and learn the alphabet. Those early years are crucial for the growth and development of children’s reading and writing skills. A study conducted by the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, which is part of the United States Education Department, showed that there is a direct correlation between children’s exposure to literature by their parents and their future academic success.

The statistics are staggering: In 2004, the Children’s Defense Fund reported that 7 out of 10 fourth graders cannot read at grade level. According to a study conducted by the National Dyslexia Association, in low-income urban schools, the illiteracy rate for fourth graders is at almost 70 percent. With patience and the right tools, it is easy to teach a child how to read and write. However, if neglected and ignored, it is very possible that a child can slip through the cracks and somehow make it their senior year in high school and not be confident in their abilities. Fortunately, just like Precious, I know that my student will not stop pursuing her education. Despite struggling to get through her work this summer, she stuck with it and never gave up. Granted, there were days when she would get too frustrated to even do her work. On the other hand, there were days when we would stay late into the evening and work on her story. At the end of the summer, we produced a magazine, and she was so proud to see her story in it.