What is Literacy?
Although we often think literacy equals reading, it is much more than that. It actually has many facets:
- reading and writing;
- talking and listening;
- critical thinking; and
Literacy is a skill we develop to express ourselves, share ideas, understand one another, and even solve problems.
Have you heard the terms “financial literacy” or “computer literacy”? What all of these “literacies” have in common is that they represent the functional use of skills in a particular life-skills area (money, technology, etc.). We aren’t born with these skills. We have to learn them.
We can recognize the symbols of letters and numbers before we can spell words. We can use words in speech long before we are able to read or write them. Literacy is a journey that begins with the sounds and giggles we make as infants and grows into vast collections of words and ideas throughout our lives.
Reading is a learned skill that requires practice every day to build and maintain proficiency. Here are some data points that underscore the impact that reading with children has on their success later in life. [Sources are available upon request.]
- Nationwide, 38 percent of public school fourth-graders and 29 percent of eighth-graders still read below basic levels. For fourth-graders, state scores range from 32 percent reading below a basic level in Delaware to 67 percent reading below a basic level in the District of Columbia.
Why this statistic matters: Most official documents – loan applications, prescription drug instructions – are written at a high school or above reading level. Not understanding those documents could significantly impact your financial and/or health status.
- Commenting on the 2004 NAEP results, learning experts say it’s inherently more difficult to improve reading skills than to make gains in mathematics, because math skills can be taught in the classroom while reading comprehension often requires support at home.
Why this statistic matters: Math concepts are built on top of the skills we use for reading: recognizing symbols and putting them together in a logical way. Reading is the foundation of all other learning, and goes beyond worksheets. It is a continuous process that requires “after school” practice.
- Children, ages 2 to 3, who have been read to several times a day, did substantially better in kindergarten than youngsters whose parents read to them a few times a week or less often. The group of children who were read to on a daily basis were 1.6 times as likely to be rated by their teachers as being near the top of their kindergarten class in learning skills, and 2.3 times as likely to be near the top of their class in communication skills. These relationships hold true regardless of the income of the child’s household and the education of the child’s mother. [Emphasis ours]
Why this statistic matters: Kids imitate what we do. If we don’t read with our kids, then they don’t think we value reading as a life skill.
- The average kindergarten student has seen more than 5,000 hours of television, having spent more time in front of the TV than it takes to earn a bachelor’s degree.
Why this statistic matters: Research is showing us that “screens before three” has a direct impact on a child’s growing brain. Watching is a passive activity that minimizes communication. The more we can engage our kids in actively using all of their senses, the more we create a strong foundation for the concepts that come with learning to read.
- Only 37 percent of high school students score high enough on reading achievement tests to handle adequately college level material—yet almost 70 percent attempt college-level work. In the fall of 2000, 76 percent of post-secondary institutions offered at least one remedial reading, writing, or mathematics course.
- For the Fall 2000 semester, 28 percent of entering freshman enrolled in remedial coursework: reading (11 percent), writing (14 percent), or mathematics (22 percent). A student who takes any remedial coursework is less likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than a student who takes none. Fifty-one percent of students who took any remedial reading enrolled in four or more remedial courses, compared with 31 percent of students who took any remedial mathematics.
Why these statistics matter: Our kids are unprepared. College and vocational training are the last steps before adulthood. Literacy skills – including writing and communication – will be crucial to them as they seek jobs and careers.
They need these skills for job applications and interviews; obtaining financial assistance; and finding a home, whether a rental or to buy.
- According to the US Department of Education, a functionally illiterate adult earns 42 percent less than a high school graduate. It is estimated that $5 billion a year in taxes goes to support people receiving public assistance who are unemployable due to illiteracy.
Why this statistic matters: Because parents always want our kids to succeed and reach their full potential. When they earn less, they bring home less for themselves and their families.
How do we change these statistics?
Changing our habits isn’t easy, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do it! Start with adding more literacy-like activities to your day.
- Listen to the radio (NPR, talk radio, music – it’s all good).
- Engage kids in conversation. Talk about that song you just heard, share stories from your childhood, ask questions. Infinite possibilities here.
- Show the kids how you use reading. Go through the incoming mail together. Let them see you reading a magazine, tell them what you’re reading on your Kindle, what kinds of websites you like to visit, etc.
Reading books and creating opportunities to spend time practicing our reading skills is an obvious first step. But it isn’t the only one.