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New York City
September 2003

Literacy: Experts Examine Our Nation's Dilemma [Part I]

Reuel Jordan

Dean of Children’s Programs, Bank Street School for Children.

I would like to offer parents some ideas about how they can help their children as they develop interest in reading and writing, and how they can support this development as their children continue to grow. The support that I am encouraging is based on three fundamental principles of the Bank Street School for Children. The first is that children learn best when their social, emotional and intellectual development is taken into account as they proceed through school. Second is that an optimal learning environment is one where children have active, experiential engagement with the world around them. The third principle is that children’s learning is optimized when there is a partnership between school and home, and the efforts of parents and teachers are coordinated. By engaging your children actively, socially, emotionally and intellectually, parents will nurture the same healthy development we strive for in school.

Providing a Secure Environment: Emotional development begins at home. The ways parents speak to their children, play with them, hold them, and admonish them help to establish children’s emotional response to the world. An important role for parents is to help make children feel secure in the world. Simple things like establishing routines around meals and bedtime can help children see that the world can be predictable. Special times like a regular story time at bedtime can ensure feelings of stability from a caring and loving family.

Encouraging Active Engagement: Today, parents need to extend themselves to encourage their children to be actively engaged. When I was growing up, I had the opportunity to play outside with the neighborhood kids every day. Handball, bike riding, multiple variations of tag, kickball, basketball, and stick ball filled my afternoons and weekends under the watchful eye of stay-at-home parents, or those on swing shifts—sentinels, peering down from their windows like watchdogs. Today, concerns about supervision and a lack of play space require most working parents who want their children to spend time outside to use weekends and holidays to foster healthy development. However, just one or two days of activity per week can ensure a more hardy and energetic child. Children benefit from being active indoors as well. Regular chores help children organize their time, sequence their activity, persevere, and be an active part of the family.

Healthy emotional development cannot take place without regular interactions with other people. Unfortunately, children today have one-third fewer opportunities to interact with others than they did forty years ago. Parents can help counteract this phenomenon by having regular face-to-face discussions at the dinner table. There, children can learn to express themselves clearly, and, equally important, learn to listen. Parents who read to and talk to their children give them a real advantage. Another vitally important way to nurture intellectual development is to expose children to new experiences so that their understanding and curiosity about the world expands. Trips to the museum, the zoo, outings in nature and the library all help children broaden their perspective.

Given this framework in fostering the three components of a developing child, we can see how parents can support their child’s literacy development, and suggest how they can coordinate their efforts with the school.

Making Reading Fun: The key to effective parent support of the school’s literacy program is that the activities at home should not be perceived as a burden, but rather as part of normal family routines. The idea is to make reading and writing something that the entire family is interested in and employs in their normal daily activities. Most importantly, children should see parents engaged in reading for information and pleasure. Parents should be models for the behavior that they wish their children to emulate.

Reading to young children is the primary and most effective pre-literacy activity parents can perform. Reading becomes an even more pleasurable activity when children can sit on a parent’s lap. While reading, parents can point out key aspects of a book, like its title, who wrote the book, letters in children’s names. They can also point out characters. Children can guess with their parents what will happen next. Children can learn the value of writing by composing notes to a parent who is at work, helping to make shopping lists, or creating lists on shopping trips. The key is that the activity is pleasurable and seen as an authentic activity for children.

Helping Older Children Love Reading: Parents of middle school children can help their children in a number of different ways. Middle school children are not too old to be read to either before bed or at some other regularly scheduled time. As part of this activity, parents can ask their children to summarize what was read the night before as a way of helping children develop their concept of story. As children begin to read on their own, parents can also engage children in what they are reading. Parents can keep abreast of the book by reading it themselves or through “read aloud” sessions where both child and parent take turns reading. Besides summarizing the plot, parents and children can make predictions about what will happen next and how they think that the characters in the book feel about the events. Parents can support writing by having children write as part of their normal home routine. Writing thank-you notes, notes on birthday cards, or keeping a diary are all authentic ways that children can regularly engage in writing at home.

The connection between school and home is important in the education of children. Parents who understand the three components of child development can make choices at home that support the work done at school. Parent support brings cohesiveness to the educational process and unifies the educational experience for children.#

Arthur Levine, Ph.D., President
Teachers College, Columbia University

Two actions stand out for me [regarding literacy]. The first is insuring universal access to quality early and preschool education for all children at risk of low literacy achievement. We know who these youngsters are. They come from homes and communities characterized by low education levels, low incomes, and high immigration and isolation rates.

The second action is providing adequate funding for inner city and rural school systems. At present, these educational systems, which house the largest numbers of failing schools and enroll the highest proportion of students failing to achieve minimum literacy standards, are funded at far lower rates than suburban school systems. The result is that they are unable to attract and retain the best-qualified teachers; their curriculum materials are dated and inadequate in number and condition; and their plants are too often antiquated. The funding I am talking about is not equal funding. It is adequate funding. The difference is quickly apparent with regard to hiring teachers.

The simple fact is that working conditions in the suburbs are better than in urban public schools and the salaries are higher as well. Paying equal salaries would not solve the problem. The only way our cities will be able to compete for the best teachers, since they cannot make the working conditions superior to those of the suburbs, is by paying higher salaries. Until we are willing to make that investment, we will continue to experience a literacy achievement gap between our affluent and poor youngsters, between children of color and whites. Until our society stops talking about the need for literacy and matches our concern with dollars, the young people who we have failed in the past, we will continue to fail in the future.

As for literacy programs, I am a very big fan of Teachers College Professor Lucy Calkins Reading and Writing Program, which is working with several hundred New York City public schools on enhancing literacy skills. When I first arrived at Teachers College, a Bronx principal called and asked if I knew Professor Calkins. I said “not yet.” He said, “You ought to. She transformed my school.” I can’t tell you how many teachers and school principals have told me the same thing over the years.#

Sandra Priest Rose
Reading Consultant & Founding Trustee of Reading Reform Foundation.

We at Reading Reform Foundation have sharpened our pencils, purchased paper and chalk and are ready for the new school year. We are excited about and committed to supporting all the changes emanating from the New York City Department of Education. Our 25 training consultants will be in 56 regular classrooms, helping to provide a foundation for the new initiatives. We’ll be teaching the sounds of the language with their appropriate letter symbols from the beginning. We’ll be helping students to understand what they are reading. We’ll be teaching students to write clear sentences, paragraphs and compositions.

As soon as the child learns a few letter sounds, he or she can immediately put them into words. Simultaneously writing and sounding out simple words first, and more complicated ones later, helps the child fix in his mind what is being taught, while reinforcing eye training. Children’s eyes have to be trained to go in the direction in which we read and write in English. This careful training helps prevent reading, writing and spelling reversals. Accurate spelling is important both for good comprehension and because inaccurate spelling imprints itself on the brain and is hard to correct.

Once the students understand the idea that letters stand for sounds and these sounds make up most of the words in our language in a predictable way, and they are at ease sounding out words independently, then directing them to comprehend what they are reading in a thoughtful way is appropriate. Here the elements of different types of writing (fiction, non-fiction), elements of stories (character, plot, conflict) and appreciation of beautiful writing all have an important place in a reading program.

A good writing program can also be started early by beginning with writing simple declarative sentences, moving to paragraphs and then to compositions, teaching the structural elements of each. Writing helps clarify thought in subject matter that interests the student most or can allow expressions of deepest feelings and concerns.

We might not have bought new clothes and book-bags but we are eager to meet the wonderful teachers and students of 2003-2004!#


Jerrold Ross, Ph.D., Dean of Education
St. John's University

I feel literacy will not increase nationally until teachers, themselves, are more culturally literate. When was the last time the subject of conversation in a teachers’ room focused on the latest best seller, Broadway’s most popular new play, one of the Met’s blockbuster exhibitions, a ballet by any company in the City? The current controversy over required curriculum materials in reading would be far less so if teachers were able to draw on a fund of information they themselves possessed to make the dreary “teach to the test” approach demanded by this curriculum more exciting for children. Any text is only a supplement to the life experience of the teacher whose principal task is to communicate the excitement and the literature or artifacts of that life experience to students.

Schools of Education must support a strong liberal arts program for prospective as well as current teachers. Education professors must demand as much literate writing from their own students as a conscientious English professor expects. Required texts must be supplemented by required additional readings and experiences that will help to illuminate the facts students are learning from texts and curricular materials that focus only on testing expectations.

While a difficult job, it can be done. Certainly in the New York City schools I attended, reading real books and most of all field trips to develop the skills of understanding and communicating were all accomplished.

There was even a place for phonics and no one fussed over it. But this was successfully done by accomplished teachers.

At St. John’s University every freshman is required to take an experiential course in “Discovering New York.” Taught largely by full-time faculty members, many of them seniors, this course introduces them to the treasures of the city and, thereby, helps to set a pattern of life-long interest in arts and letters, the determinant of a literate person who, in turn, can teach “literacy.”#

Edward Zigler, Ph.D.
Sterling Professor of Psychology
Yale University, Planner of the Head Start program.

Of late there have been criticisms that Head Start is not doing a very good job teaching literacy to its young students. The ability to read is absolutely essential for an individual to have a successful life. However, as someone who has studied the growth and development of children for some 45 years, it is my responsibility to point out that reading is just one aspect of cognitive development, and that cognitive development is just one aspect of human development. Cognitive skills are of course very important, but they are so intertwined with the physical, social, and emotional systems that it is myopic, if not futile, to dwell on the intellect and exclude its partners.

Think about what goes into literacy. It involves mastery of the alphabet, phonemes, and other basic word skills. But a prerequisite to achieving mastery is good physical health. The child who is frequently absent from school because of illness, or who has vision or hearing problems, will have a difficult time learning to read. So will children who suffer emotional troubles such as depression, attention deficits, or posttraumatic stress disorder. And think about motivation. A child’s curiosity and belief that he or she can succeed are just as important to reading as knowing the alphabet. Phonemic instruction by the most qualified teacher will do little for a child who suffers from hunger, abuse, or a sense of inferiority.

We must broaden our understanding of when and where literacy begins. I’ve heard a lot of preschool teacher bashing lately, but in reality, literacy begins much earlier than age four. It begins with the thousands of loving interactions with parents after an infant is born. It begins as a child develops a sense of self worth by realizing that his or her accomplishments, whether they be learning to roll over or to recite the alphabet, are important to significant others. It begins with sitting in a safe lap, hearing a familiar bedtime story. Eventually the child will want to emulate the parent and read too.

Do I believe that Head Start should do more to promote literacy? Most definitely. The new performance standards are moving the program toward more defined curricula with specific goals for literacy and related skills. Head Start is a model program whose success in promoting school readiness has fed the movement toward universal preschool.

In sum, if we want a nation of readers, we have to look beyond teaching phonics. We have to look at the whole child, the parents, and at all of the people and experiences that make up the child’s early learning environment.#

Excerpts from testimony given before the U.S. Senate on February 12, 2003.

Dr. Twila C. Liggett, Ph.D.
Eight-time, Emmy award-winning executive producer, educator and author,
creator of the award-winning PBS series, Reading Rainbow

The idea of literacy is at the same time complex and simple. Contrary to popular belief, most kids (not all) learn, relatively easily, how to read. (For example, the recent National Assessment of Educational Progress report states that the average reading score of 4th grade students has risen since 1994.) Unfortunately, what much of the research does not reveal is whether these kids still love to read. It is my observation that even at a young age and paradoxically, when they still love to be read to, far too often children don’t choose, nor want, to read books on their own. In fact, there is a term for this phenomenon, literacy.

How does one spark and feed the joy of reading which is my view of true literacy?

In 1980 when I first began to think about how to take this message to children in a major way, I focused on the use of a pervasive medium television as a tool to promote, indeed, to star wonderful books that kids would ask for, enjoy, come to love and want to read for themselves!

Evaluation, research studies and personal letters have confirmed that Reading Rainbow has been wildly successful in leading kids to great books plus igniting their curiosity, learning and understanding of ideas and cultures. Our Reading Rainbow graduates, send us emails, phone calls and offers of help to keep the series alive, because in the word of one 20 something entrepreneur, Reading Rainbow inspired me to develop creative and positive products for kids and I still love to read!

Literacy is far too often defined as passing tests and reading required school texts, most of which are very poorly written. This is much too limited a view. Rather, literacy is a thirst for knowledge, fueled by books and learning from every possible medium including television and the Internet. Literacy and a love of reading start at day one when kids are read to, the printed and spoken word predominate at home and parents themselves share their own love of reading with their children.

Finally, every Reading Rainbow episode demonstrates to parents and teachers a way to give children the wonderful gift of loving to read. Starting with the reading of a great picture book and then exploring the ideas generated by the book, for example going to a museum to find out more about dinosaurs, and finally finding more books to share with other kids is a sure fire way to get kids excited about reading.

As a former teacher and reading consultant, I have watched several decades of various reading programs and policies come and go. And, more than ever I am not convinced that a national curriculum and mandated tests will result in a more literate citizenry. I am convinced, however, that loving to read is the path to lifelong literacy and that is the mission we at Reading Rainbow are happily dedicated to.#

City: State:

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