Most researchers have concluded that tens of millions of our adults are illiterate or barely able to read. They further conclude that most American adults who need help in learning to read are white, rather than members of minority groups.
The problem of illiteracy is becoming more and more serious, year by year. Less than half of the states have defined illiteracy; for those who have, the most common definition is the inability to read on an average fourth-grade level. Thus, an illiterate might be able to read a stop sign, but not a job manual.
As we attempt to keep up with other advanced nations in productivity, illiteracy presents a big problem. American students’ reading and writing skills and test scores are declining, and theincreasing gap between the underprivileged and the more prosperous students is particularly alarming. The latest studies show that more than 40 percent of our children test below grade level.
Obviously, there are many forces that affect children’s intellectual development and achievement. The means and stability of their families, the resources of their schools, and the quality of their teachers are among the most important. We also know, for instance, that the amount of reading students is asked to do, in school and at home, makes a profound difference in the development of reading ability. And there’s no doubt that students today read less than students did years ago.
Educators, politicians, and parents all blame class size, crumbling schools, inconsistent standards, and the bloated bureaucracy of public education for this unfortunate trend.
Although these are legitimate concerns, the real problem, argues leading educators in the field, is much more basic—and disturbing—than we might expect.
They contend that basal readers, the primary tool for teaching reading in elementary schools for decades, have been the single most important key to academic performance.
Yet today, the incorporation of a multicultural agenda into the content of these texts has had tragic consequences for our children’s ability to read.
Now politically correct ideology or multiculturalism has come to mean something entirely different for elementary school reading curriculums. Cultural content used for reading instruction in the primary grades has become extraneous to the extent that it leavesmany children apathetic toward what is perhaps the most important subject in education.
Critics assert that under the guise of an overzealous, culturally diverse agenda, intellectual and literary goals are rapidly being displaced by social and political aims and by the demands of a profoundly liberal, moralizing, and intellectually far-off program.
In other words, to incorporate more ethically varied readings into children’s textbooks and to raise minority students’ self-esteem, basal readers have steadily transformed their content.
What is more, as the reading texts have become grammatically impractical with their reformed vocabulary-building aim, there has been a downward trend in children’s analytical powers, general knowledge, and overall literacy.
Some educators offer overwhelming evidence that today’s version of multiculturalism is needlessly limiting the academic achievements of the very children for whom most of these changes were initiated.
Systematic phonics instruction in their beginning reading program, a strong reading list, and a rigorous curriculum in every content area makes the most sense to elementary teachers in the 21st century.
Education’s aim should be to teach children to read from the best literature available—not from the most ethnically diverse selections we can find.
Today’s version of cultural diversity and the development of the basic reading skills children need for academic success are unfortunately and undeniably incompatible.
Perhaps the real hope for parents and educators seeking to regain literacy for our county’s children is the reminder that ultimately, reading teaches us how to think—regardless of whether we are rich or poor, black, or white.
If enough parents and other citizens make the effort to communicate their concerns about the content of the most basic subject in the elementary school curriculum to their local and state school boards, we may be able to avoid the creation of a new divide in American public life: the gap between those citizens who can use the language of this country to participate in public affairs and those citizens who have been deprived of the opportunity to learn it.
Top o’ the morning!