Early Literacy: Making It Happen

If you were asked to define the word literacy, I am sure that it would be quite easy to come up with a definition. It could be defined as the basic ability to read.  Others might say that it is the ability to communicate through reading and writing.  One could even say that literacy is how humans use written words to function in our world today.  No matter who is defining the word, there is no doubt that literacy is important in today’s world, yet we still live in a nation where more than 20 percent of adults read below a fifth grade level.  Think about it; that is one out of every five adults reading below fifth grade level.  In a society as sophisticated as ours, what does this mean?

Strong literacy skills are more likely to help individuals acquire decent paying jobs with more abilities to advance while poor literacy skills often lead to low paying jobs with less stability, poor working conditions, and unappealing hours.  Aside from jobs and wages, just envision yourself unable to read and write.  The simplest task to a literate person is almost impossible for one who struggles with reading and writing.  Reading the labels on medication,  writing a note to your child’s teacher, reading a map , a transaction at the  ATM machine, reading a restaurant menu, reading street signs; all of these things come almost natural to a literate being, however not being able to perform these tasks could be dangerous.

The statistics in our correctional institutions are eye opening. Almost 85 percent of the children who enter the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate, while 60 percent of the adults in prison are considered illiterate (Ellis, 2011).  We cannot allow this to continue to happen in our nation.  Illiteracy is a viscous cycle and we as a nation need to stop the cycle.  The question is where do we begin?

I believe that early literacy is the key!  The more children we can reach the better.  The younger the children are when we reach them, even better!  A typical 5-year old child is able to identify 22 letters and sounds of the alphabet compared to just 9 letters for a child from a low-income family (Ehri-Roberts, 2006).  Children who cannot read at a third grade level by age 8 are exponentially more likely to enter the prison system (Ohio Governor’s Forum, 2008).   Almost half of the children who are getting ready to enter kindergarten do not have the basic language skills that they will need to learn to read.  This is where the work must begin.

It is because of statistics like these that programs like Reach Out and Read are so important.  Reach out and Read is a program that promotes early literacy and school readiness.  It prepares young children to succeed in school by partnering with doctors to prescribe books and encourage families to read together.  Through this program, doctors and nurses speak to parents about the importance of reading and they offer age appropriate tips and encouragement.  After the educating happens in the office, each child (ages 6 months to 5 years) receives a new book to take home and keep.   There are also volunteers in many of the doctor’s waiting rooms who are trained to engage the children in literacy and music activities.  The impact this program and others like it are having on our youth is amazing!

We can only defeat this problem by working as a nation, one child at a time.  As a teacher, parent, and member of our society, I strongly encourage you to do your part today.  Start by simply donating a book, a dollar, or giving up time to volunteer.  Grab a child and read to them. It is more valuable than you think!

by Michelle Vayansky, Community Outreach Committee Chairperson for Central OEA/NEA

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