Will Our Children Flourish Or Fail In The Midst Of A Literacy Crisis?

Many parents have been wondering if their children will be safe when they return to school. But another question looms in the quiet halls of Pre-K facilities across the country: When our children return to school, will they be able to thrive?

As COVID disruption put many educational operations on pause, it’s left our children facing an unprecedented literacy crisis. 

Distance learning puts some children at a disadvantage. Hit hardest those who were already marginalized, including 773 million non-literate adults and young people – two-thirds of whom are women and 617 million children and adolescents who were failing to acquire basic reading and numeracy skills even before the crisis, reports UNESCO.

773 million non-literate adults and young people have been marginalized by the COVID pandemic.
773 million non-literate adults and young people have been marginalized by the COVID pandemic.

“Adult literacy and education have been absent in many initial education responses of countries and of the international community. Even before the crisis, nearly 60% of governments spent less than 4% of education budgets on adult literacy and education,” said UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Education, Ms Stefania Giannini. “In this time of crisis that has pushed societies to the limits, let’s make literacy a force for inclusion and resilience, to reimagine how we live, work, and learn for a more sustainable and just development path.”

As reported in, Early Warning, from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “…the process of dropping out begins long before high school. It stems from loss of interest in middle school, often triggered by retention in grade…and that, in a great many cases, is the result of not being able to read proficiently as early as fourth grade.”

Youth reading has decreased as educators are forced to distance themselves from students.
Youth reading has decreased as educators are forced to distance themselves from students.

Reading on grade-level by the end of third grade is one of the most critical milestones in education, reports Literacy Mid-South. Studies show that 74% of 3rd graders who read poorly still struggle in ninth grade, and third grade reading scores can predict a student’s likelihood to graduate high school.

Donald Hernandez reports in Double Jeopardy, that children who do not read proficiently by the end of third grade are four times more likely to leave school without a diploma than proficient readers. While those with the lowest reading scores account for only a third of students, this group accounts for more than 63% of all children who do not graduate from high school.

74% of 3rd graders who read poorly still struggle in ninth grade, and third grade reading scores can predict a student’s likelihood to graduate high school.
74% of 3rd graders who read poorly still struggle in ninth grade, and third grade reading scores can predict a student’s likelihood to graduate high school.

According to the Literacy Center, children who never hear a bedtime story or receive help with homework because their parent can’t read. The greatest single indicator of a child’s academic success is the educational level of his/her mother. If a parent can’t read, the child starts school at a disadvantage. Then, once the child is in school, the parent is unable to help with homework. Low literacy perpetuates across generations.

Low literacy perpetuates across generations.
Low literacy perpetuates across generations.

 
The Literacy Center offers the following statistics on the costs of low literacy outside family boundaries:

     

  • Low literacy costs American businesses and taxpayers more than $225 billion annually, through lost wages, unemployment, welfare and other government assistance.
  • Low literacy adds $230 billion to the annual cost of delivering healthcare in the United States. International studies have found that the greatest single indicator of family and community health is the educational level of the mother.
  • There’s a link between low literacy and crime. Seventy-five percent of adults incarcerated in state prisons lack a high school diploma or have low literacy skills.
  • Our local economy needs a prepared, educated workforce to draw new businesses to our area and to keep pace with new technology.
  • Individuals with low literacy are less likely to vote or participate in civic activities.

Comer Yates, executive director of the Atlanta Speech School, Renée Boynton-Jarrett, a social epidemiologist and pediatrician at Boston University School of Medicine and the founding director of the Vital Village Community Engagement Network, and Maryanne Wolf, a neuroscientist, literacy advocate, and the director of the Center For Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice at the University of California, Los Angeles Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, propose two promising options to mitigating this literacy crisis.

Help save our children from a literacy crisis!
Help save our children from a literacy crisis!

“First, we must change our universal assumptions around how young children learn. Advances in brain science make it clear that we must teach every child ‘to listen’ rather than demand they ‘be quiet,'” Yates, Boynton-Jarrett and Wolf write in EducationWeek. “Interactive ‘serve and return’ language engagement can foster relationships with adults that make space for vulnerability, support, agency, and healing. These relationships also help children build not only psychological strength but actual brain capacity to learn through the forming of social-emotional neural pathways. These pathways carry students from preliteracy language development, through to explicit reading instruction, to deep reading, and ultimately to the will and ability to make the greatest difference in the lives of others.”

“Second, we must equip our teachers with the tools necessary to be part of the fight against this cycle of injustice,” Yates, Boynton-Jarrett and Wolf continue. “Elementary and pre-K educators need the social-emotional skills and the necessary training in the science-backed explicit instruction every child needs through 3rd grade to read deeply. Reading deeply allows children to think beyond preconceived ideas and ultimately to act with the freedom to chart their own course. Structural inequities like underfunding education by ZIP code and institutional racism also demand action, but well-trained teachers themselves have a huge role to play in a just future.”

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