Friday, September 07, 2007

International Literacy Day is September 8

Learning to read. A simple thing, right? It happens when we’re very young and most of us don’t even remember how we learned. If you were like me, you just did it. It was natural and felt right. Reading became an every day, ordinary part of my life.

Not so, for all people.

Many young children and adults struggle with learning to read. They may have acquired rudimentary skills and can get along enough to read road signs, figure out how much medicine to take, or follow picture directions to put the entertainment center together. Adults with low-literacy skills learn coping mechanisms to get by “enough” to mask the fact that they can’t read. Reading a note from their child’s teacher is frustrating. Sitting down to leisurely read a novel for pleasure is not an option.

September 8 celebrates International Literacy Day. Today there are almost 4 billion literate people in the world. One might think that here in the U.S., the low literacy issues are few. Not so. In fact, the issues are rather alarming. I could quote you all kinds of statistics but I fear you’d soon turn away from reading on. I could say that American businesses spend of $60 billion a year for remedial reading, writing and math training for their employees. I could add that 40% of all high school graduates lack the literacy skills employees seek. I could also share that only 3% of all eighth grade students read on an advanced level. Suffice it to say that we have a bit of a problem with low literacy with children, and adults, in this country. We’ve not yet won the literacy war.

So why should we, as readers and writers, be concerned? For one, we certainly want all American workers to be literate. Reading is important for all jobs. Whether it’s reading the work schedule for the week, measuring medicine at the pharmacy, or following the directions on how to cook a Big Mac, we want workers to know how to read. So they can be successful in their own right. So we can trust that the workforce knows what they are doing.

But I want more. For everyone.

Imagine the thrill of sitting down and reading a novel for the first time from front to back. To laugh out loud at the phrases or read a deep passage and really, really understand it. To sigh at the happy ending. To race on the back of a flying monkey as it soars through a jungle or to cry alongside Scarlett O’Hara when Rhett tells her he doesn’t give a damn. To hold a book in your hand and see the story unfold in your mind as you read along, conjuring up the images as you see them in your head – your images, no one else’s – your interpretation of what is happening in the story.

That’s different from movies and video. There, we sit back and take in someone else’s view of the story. With a book, you can make that movie in your head work exactly as you would envision it. You are an active participant in the story. Books do that.

How sad that so many people in our country, children and adults, never experience the power and the pleasure of literacy. Truly, books are both powerful and pleasurable. Those of us who write, long to share our words with others and make them feel that power and that pleasure. We ache to make you ache right alongside our characters, to feel, to sigh, to giggle and guffaw, to be sad, to mourn, to die a little right along with them.

How sad. Yes. But what can we do?

Promote literacy. Talk it up. Find a non-profit literacy organization you can support. Give a donation. Give away some of your old paperbacks to a local adult education program. Volunteer to be a tutor or a reader at your local elementary school. Work your hometown library’s book sale. Perhaps even write a book, or a short story, and donate the proceeds to literacy.

Read to your children…and your grandchildren. Buy them books and more books. And talk to them. Talk, talk, talk. Because talking with young children makes them love language. And when they love language, they have an easier time learning to read. Exposure to books and language. Yes. It’s a beginning.

Okay, so I have to confess. I’ve worked in education for a long, long time and currently work for a non-profit literacy organization. I spend a lot of time in some of the poorest and most disadvantaged schools in the nation, with children and their parents who struggle—not only with reading but with the daily tasks of living. Recently, I read a quote from one of our parents, and it was probably the saddest thing I’ve heard in a long time. The parent said, “I never realized the importance of reading a book to my child, because when I was young, no one ever read a book to me.”

That, nearly breaks my heart. So, on International Literacy Day this year, September 8, 2007, I challenge you to read a book to a child. Any child. Find one. And if you can’t find a child, read to your spouse, your neighbor, your postman. Or simply, just read to you.

I guarantee it will make your heart feel good.

Maddie

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