Money / Opinion

Childhood Reading – the Key to a Better, Stronger (and Richer) America

By – Mike Fuljenz

The tragic American reading proficiency deficit is a moral and financial imperative for all Americans to recognize, address and correct.  Among the world’s 30 richest nations, the U.S. ranks 17th in reading skills although we rank #5 in education spending. Clearly, we are not getting our money’s worth in our society or in our schools.  What we need is a reading awareness program starting in infancy and lasting a lifetime.

Reading deficiency is a moral crisis because a child who cannot read often grows into a troubled teen or young adult who cannot earn an honest living in a decent job.  Those who cannot read are unable to fill out a job application or find meaningful work, so they too often turn to a life of crime.  About 85% of juveniles embedded in the U.S. court system are functionally illiterate. Over 70% of prison inmates cannot read above a fourth grade level. Research shows even a 5% increase in male high school graduation rates would save the United States up to $18.5 billion in crime and incarceration costs.  Clearly, the inability to read is a cohort for criminal behavior, which creates a financial crisis.

The New York Times reported last year that New York City paid $167,731 to feed, house and guard each inmate in 2012.  For a career criminal who spends most of his adult life in courts, probation or prison, the costs to society easily surpass $1 million per prisoner, and the U.S. holds more of its citizens prisoner than any other nation.  Even a small (10%) decline in prison population could save taxpayers billions per year.

Third Grade – The Crucial Year

Many experts believe that third grade, about age eight, is the dividing line between success and failure in reading and future learning. Experts have determined that third grade reading proficiency is the single most important predictor of whether children will graduate from high school and be gainfully employed.  In October 2013, the National Governor’s Association released a report urging governors to take specific actions to improve reading by the third grade and fifteen states and the District of Columbia now have strict retention policies based on third grade reading proficiency.

In an ideal education world, children will learn to read by the end of the third grade. After that, from fourth grade through their old age, they read to learn. However, about two thirds of children in the U.S. (and 80% of those below poverty levels) fail to develop reading proficiency by the end of the third grade.  Specifically, only 35% of fourth grade American school children are proficient in reading, according to a National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) study released in November 2013.  The percentage for African Americans and Hispanics are tragically much lower than 35%.

Parents should take care when reviewing their children’s scores on state and national reading tests.  Studies have shown significant disparity between the results when such tests were given to fourth-graders, with scores on state tests often much higher than those on national tests.  In Texas, for example, 85 percent of the fourth-graders tested passed the state exam, but only 28 percent got passing scores on a national test, according to a report by USA Today.  Texas was one of five states where the percentage of the disparity between state and national scores was the greatest.

The problem doesn’t reside in our school system alone.  The home environment from birth to first grade is even more important than what the child encounters in school.  Due to a lack of a suitable reading environment in many homes, more than one in every three children start kindergarten without the basic language skills they need to begin the road toward reading by the end of the third grade – such as the ability to sound out a word by identifying and sounding out the letters in the alphabet. This gives them a disadvantage when it comes to keeping up with their classmates. If a child cannot read by the end of third grade, that child often falls farther and farther behind his peer group.  In some public schools in troubled cities – such as Detroit – the Department of Education reports that only 7% of eighth graders are grade level proficient in reading.  That doesn’t bode well for the future of those cities.

In another study of reading skills, 15-year-olds who read daily for pleasure achieved reading scores that were 1-1/2 years of schooling better than their peers who did not.  It is important to develop a lifetime habit of reading books, early in life, since the habit will follow you and enrich your life…if you let it.

Reading To (and With) Your Children

When raising your children to be successful citizens in this complex world, love, food and shelter are of primary importance, but when all the necessities of life are taken care of, the most important component in creating future success and happiness in most children comes from reading – first reading to them, then reading with them, and then launching them into their own fulfilling lifetime of self-directed reading.

Specifically, children whose parents don’t read to them at home hear fewer words and know fewer words. But a child who enjoys a rich life of reading at home will more likely take rapidly to reading in school.

Reading to pre-school children is essential in creating the desire for future reading in school and life. Author Jason Boog has written a book, just released, called “Born Reading.”  When his daughter Olive was born nearly four years ago, he began reading to her shortly after her birth.  He then interviewed experts about how this habit of reading could impact his daughter later in life.  He found that, even if an infant can’t sit, stand, point or make intelligible sounds, “the act and the sound of your voice is turning on switches in their brain constantly in those first two years of life,” so Olive’s dad “set her up in her bouncy chair and as she drank her bottle I would pull out a board book and read it to her.  Every single day you would see a little bit more light in those eyes and you would see her start to follow the story a little bit.”

Boog summarized “30 years of research telling us it’s just crucial for a developing brain to do this.”  At a time when “smart phones” and texting proliferate among today’s youth, books are receding from the public imagination, but Boog argues that hospital staff should be “handing out something at the hospital saying it’s really important that you [read to your] child, have this interactive experience.”  Hospitals already hand out public health flyers for preventing infant diseases and child abuse. They should also tell parents about child-reading groups, along with encouragement to read to the newborn as soon as possible.

Once reading becomes a habit, it can be virtually free to pursue throughout a lifetime.  Library books are essentially free. Electronic reading devices like the Amazon Kindle (which many libraries rent out) will let you download free samples of most books.  In addition, friends can swap their favorite books. There is no excuse to run out of quality books to read if we capture the skills and the desire to read early in life.  It can be challenging at times to find a children’s book that features minorities, but award-winning books like “Corduroy” are out there.

A parent or guardian who does not emphasize reading skills is practicing a form of child neglect, or even abuse.  And a public school or school system that does not provide additional resources for those students who are lagging behind in reading proficiency is adhering to a form of educational malpractice.

Finding Solutions to America’s Reading Deficit

Alas, it is often impossible for poor children to learn reading skills if their parent(s) – more likely, a single parent – is unable to read well or is unwilling to read to the child or enlist the child in a reading program.  We need more parent engagement as far too many single parents, many with stairstep children, do not attend parent/teacher conferences to work together with their teachers on reading proficiency strategies.

In trying to help those at-risk families, a number of us parents in Beaumont, Texas, support a program called “Save Our Children” (SOC).  Beaumont minister and SOC founder, the Reverend J.D. Roberts is using this program to improve the reading capabilities of children in the Beaumont Independent School District.

In this program, Rev. Roberts and his volunteer teachers help four elementary grade Beaumont schools in their quest to improve reading capabilities of at-risk children.  During these two-hour weekly sessions, in both the fall and spring semesters, children are given booster courses in reading to catch up with their classmates.  Students are served a popular meal at the beginning and end of the program day.  In the four elementary schools, the program runs for six weeks, followed by a graduation ceremony to promote the child’s sense of accomplishment.  I am happy to be one of the leading private sponsors, along with other local businesses.

Earlier this year, Rev. Roberts honored local contributors for being partners in the fight against illiteracy.  He was kind enough to say, “Because of Mike Fuljenz, a former educator himself, the ‘Learning to Read, Reading to Learn’ program being used in the school is helping get kids up to speed with the reading potential.  Mike has helped provide the funding so that teachers, who work with these children on a daily basis can work with them after hours.”

This may be a small effort in a small city in one corner of one state, but over 140 other U.S. communities have signed up for the Campaign for Grade Level Reading, a push to ensure students read proficiently by the end of the third grade, in order to rescue many of our children from a life of crime and loneliness.

There are much larger efforts to promote reading, both in Texas and nationwide.  In nearby Houston, the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation, led by Neil and Maria Bush and Julie Backer Finck, is successfully addressing the scourge of low reading skills throughout Texas and across America.

I would encourage parents to put as much emphasis on reading as they do on other activities, like sports and music.  I love sports and I participated in both sports and music programs in school, but I would be the first to admit that we need reading participation classes even more, since reading is the key to all other studies.  Children who read well are also more likely to improve their scores in math and other subjects.  School-reform experts also say it’s harder to improve reading than math.

If you are a proficient reader, consider volunteering at your library or local literary council.  I believe you will get as much out of the experience as those you help.  Even better, volunteer at your child’s school.  Children do better in school academically and behaviorally if their parents volunteer at the school.

If a child has a diagnosed reading disability, like dyslexia, it is important for well trained teachers and parents to work together on accommodations or modifications for the child.  It is the law and sometimes you must insist to the school that an education plan be implemented for your child.  Simple things like colored paper, bigger spaces between sentences, more pictures, added time and more interaction with a tutor when reading, can help.

You’re never alone when you’re inside a book, and you’re never bored if you let a book set your mind free.  A book is still your passport to success and a better America for all.

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