Literacy in Hard Times

Because I’ve spent so much time in the last few years teaching reading, both to individuals and to small groups of students, I have seen first-hand the toll that struggling to read takes on adults and children. Through the teaching process, you learn a lot about the students you’re teaching and consequently, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the issues that haunt them because they cannot read as well as those around them can. Almost every struggling reader has developed low self-esteem, the natural consequence of struggling to do something that most around you do not struggle to do. Because the inability to read well is so pervasive and impacts almost all aspects of one’s life, that single area of weakness overshadows significant strengths which every student that I have taught has. Part of the trick of teaching students to read is to focus on those strengths so that, even as they learn to read, they rediscover their own belief in themselves.

I recently saw some statistics that made me think about some of the broader societal issues surrounding literacy, especially the link between poverty and illiteracy. The Census Bureau recently released statistics (released in November of 2011) about local poverty in 2010. In Stokes County, the percentage of people living in poverty was 14.3%, up from 11% in 2005. That represents about 1,750 more individuals in Stokes County living in poverty in 2010 than in 2005.

Among school-age children in Stokes, the percentage rose from 14.1% in 2005 to 19.9% in 2010. If that number is accurate, that means that we are teaching over 40% more students impacted by poverty, today than we were just five years ago.

Economic hard times have affected all of us in recent years in some way, but they are impacting these students in ways that I don’t think we have given significant thought to. Poverty and literacy are inextricably linked. It is well documented that a student raised in poverty struggles more to learn to read than do their more advantaged peers. Students who leave school as poor readers are less likely to succeed as adults and are more likely to live in poverty as adults. According to the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (another study is due in a few years), 41% of all adults at the most basic level of literacy (Level 1) live in poverty, compared to only 4% of those with the highest level of proficiency (Level 5). It is a cycle that constantly perpetuates itself.

When we teach students to read, we are helping to change their lives in a very personal and significant way. In a broader sense, we are also changing the world in which we all live. As economic hard times continue, it is more important than ever to increase our efforts to teach adults and children to read.

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