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Reinvigorating Literacy Education in the US

November 19, 2009 07:00 AM
by Colleen Brondou
In addition to a slew of studies, initiatives, programs and methods that aim to teach American children to read, a new federal bill would provide much-needed funds for literacy programs.

Nearly $12 Billion Proposed for Literacy Education

Although state and local funding for schools has taken a hit, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., has introduced a bill that would provide almost $12 billion over five years for literacy programs.

The legislation also focuses on an area of increasing concern in literacy education: middle school and high school. According to Les Blumenthal, writing for The News Tribune of Tacoma, Wash., many educators report seeing middle school students’ reading test scores take a dip, even though these students’ earlier reading problems were thought to have been resolved. Blumenthal explains that fewer teachers and less one-on-one instruction are available for older students.

“I think it’s the critical silent issue in education,” Murray said. “Where we have not focused are in the upper grades.”

The funding in the bill would be directed at school districts and states, and could finance staff training, literacy coaches and state literacy plans. Ten percent of the funding in the bill would be allocated to programs for children from birth to age 5, 40 percent to students in kindergarten through grade five, and 40 percent to students in grade six through grade 12. The remaining 10 percent would be discretionary.

Background: Literacy rates

Blumenthal reports that “[l]iteracy rates vary widely from school district to school district.” In several districts in the Tacoma area, for example, more than 70 percent of students meet reading standards, but in Tacoma itself, just 60 percent meet standards, and in Pasco, only 55 percent.

Approximately 40 percent of all students have a hard time learning to read, Blumenthal reports. “I struggled to learn to read,” Paul Rosier, executive director of the Washington Association of School Administrators and a former superintendent of the Kennewick School District, told Blumenthal. “It was discouraging. It was hard work. When kids struggle, they are turned off.”

When kids are turned off, they may grow up to be illiterate adults. In 2003, the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) looked at a “nationally representative” sample of 18,500 adults in the United States to see which level of literacy they could attain: Below Basic, Basic, Intermediate and Proficient. The study found that “30 million adults have Below Basic prose literacy.” Prose literacy is defined as “the knowledge and skills needed to search, comprehend, and use information from continuous texts such as books, newspaper articles, or magazines.”

Opinion & Analysis: Why do kids struggle to learn to read?

Experts offer several theories to explain why some students have problems learning to read. Some kids are immigrants and are just learning English as a second language. Others have reading disabilities such as dyslexia or other learning disabilities. For others, poverty and a difficult home life contribute to the problem.

As an example, Blumenthal cites an inner-city school in Tacoma where more than 70 percent of students receive reduced or free lunches. According to Dawn Musgrove, a teacher in the school district, about 50 to 60 percent of the school’s approximately 600 students have reading difficulties.

One school district in the Tacoma area, Federal Way School District, has the most AmeriCorps workers of any school district in the country—70. The tutors work with about 6,000 students that are having problems with reading. But as Monda Holsinger, the Federal Way AmeriCorps director, explains, poverty is another problem for these students. “[S]ome of the students the AmeriCorps workers tutor are given snacks before they go home at night because they might not eat again until their free school breakfast,” Blumenthal notes.

Other experts say that an emphasis on math and science has drawn attention away from literacy programs and as a result, these programs are suffering. But some believe the problem lies within the U.S. reading curriculum itself: It’s been criticized for emphasizing the standard classics and catering too heavily to female readers. How to appeal to all readers at their individual levels? Some teachers say students should be allowed to choose their own books to read.

Related Topic: Literacy: The path to happiness?

A 2008 study from Britain’s National Literacy Trust found that literate people are more likely to be happy and have significant personal relationships. The study also found that literate adults are also more likely to vote and buy a home.

Reference: Literacy Web guides; Volunteer opportunities

FindingDulcinea has language and literacy resources for Grade 1, Grade 2, Grade 3 and Grade 4, as well as Elementary English, Middle School English and High School English Web Guides. is a gateway to volunteer opportunities around the world. Simply enter “literacy” or “reading” into the Keywords field to get a complete list of volunteer positions.

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