Literature and Films on Literacy

     Dr. McGuinness first tells us that “we know how to teach reading so that every child can succeed” and that “there are highly successful programs in all categories of reading instruction ….” She discusses the cornerstones of effective reading programs, but they get all but lost in the book. Dr. McGuinness spends more time telling us what doesn’t work than telling us what does. Likely, she felt compelled to spend so much time on the failures because they seem to be the way we still teach children to read - or, better said, fail to teach them to read. Along the way, Dr. McGuinness parses through the “research” on reading education. It was obviously a daunting task to even identify the few studies which merited mention among the thousands that simply didn’t. Perhaps Dr. McGuinness’s best contribution through this book is to make us appreciate the volume of bad information circulating about how to teach reading and the number of ineffective methods being used. 

Life Is So Good
By George Dawson, Richard Glaubman

     Mr. Dawson recounts that "the little ones went off to school and I kept working." His dream of going to school and learning to read faded for him at 16. He was the oldest, and "there was work to be done." This compelling recount of his first 100 or so years makes clear that he did not let his inability to read define him. "Book-learning isn't everything," "you can learn a lot by listening," and "[c]ommon sense will go a long way." Still, Mr. Dawson wished often through his life that he had learned to read. Himself a good ballplayer, Mr. Dawson particularly recalls being unable to read newspaper accounts of 42's transcendence to the majors. He wanted to be able to read the morning box scores just to see how Jackie did. Being unable to read a menu, a map, directions, instructions, a job application, or his paycheck presented daily challenges. It "made [him] too different" to pursue a pretty girl who could read. It kept him from writing his family as he traveled the continent. "Not knowing how to read, ... [he] was on the outside." He knew that "someday it would be [his] turn to read too." That turn just didn't come until he was 98. He then learned that "you could meet someone in a book and get to know him that way." You should get to know Mr. Dawson.


     Does all this "new technology" promise literacy for all or just mean there is more to learn and teach? Professor Jacobson explores whether, where, and how the latest modern technology fits into adult basic education. At times, you'll think the internet is redefining literacy itself. At others, you'll think it is simply one more tool. Professor Jacobson makes you pause before jumping to either conclusion. His is a studied, rational, mindful discussion of learning and teaching with and through technology and the importance of learning and teaching analytic skills eyed toward both content and the nature of the delivery system. You'll ponder the technology of use versus the use of technology.


     Illiteracy plagues the United States. We've known this for decades. Despite this, we've made virtually no progress in reducing it. Dr. McGuinness takes great care to explain that while spoken language is "natural" written language is not. More, English is a very difficult language to read because political, cultural, and religious events contributed as much if not more to its evolution than did logic. The way we try to teach people to read ensures continued illiteracy at rates no one should find acceptable. If we taught reading by scientifically proven methods almost everyone would learn to read proficiently. Dr. McGuinness explains what is and is not scientifically proven to work and why those proven methods do not generally find their way into our classrooms. If she is right, you ought to be mad. You are going to be mad after you read this. Get out your pen. You will want to take notes. 

     Dr. Calkins' overarching point seems to be that parents can and should better nurture their children's interests by embellishing and creating everyday opportunities for their children to learn. Mainly through anecdote, she describes the osmosis through which children certainly learn many things. While Dr. Calkins describes interesting ways to encourage children to embrace reading and other learning, this is not a book that really explains how children should be taught to read in the first place. No doubt, she offers an array of ideas as to how parents might support their children's learning, but the book seems to assume that the child is or will be able to make sense of those symbols on the page. In the appendices, Ms. Bellino mentions the tension between "phonics" and "whole language" teaching, but avoids any real discussion of their merits other than to suggest that they may not be incompatible. Likely, this is explained by her opinion that no single one approach to teaching reading can promise that any particular child will become a strong reader.        



      The title says it all but only tells part of Mr. Corcoran's fascinating story. You have to read it to believe it. Apparently, many still don't believe that he really was a high school teacher who could not read. Of course, he became a teacher who couldn't read only after graduating from high school and college - unable to read. You should be shocked.  You'll certainly be intrigued. His story teaches that the causes of illiteracy are many, yet common. But, it is not a personal failure. He puts a face on the statistics about illiteracy. His story also teaches us that anyone can learn to read even if they're, say, 48.



     This heady, academic collection of Dr. Graff's thoughts will make you think anew your assumptions about the causes and effects of literacy and illiteracy. Two excerpts might set the stage for your reading:

    "Several decades of serious, often revisionary, scholarship and criticism join in the conclusion that reading and writing, whatever their requirements or consequences - they are hotly debated - take on their meaning and acquire their value only in concrete historical circumstances that mediate in specific terms whatever general or supposedly 'universal' attributes or concomitants may be claimed for literacy."

    "Conversely, although seldom appreciated, present-day conceptions, arrangements, and practices of literacy as well as schooling and learning are historically founded and grounded. They are also strong and powerfully resistant to change. Ignorance of the circumstances in which crucial concepts, arrangements, and expectations were fashioned, the means by which they have been maintained, and their consequences together limit severely if not contradict directly contemporary analysis, diagnosis, prescription."

     No, really.  Read it again and then go study Dr. Graff's writings.


     What's music got to do with adult literacy? A lot. Dr. Marcus teaches us that adults can still learn. We travel with the author as he sets out at 38 to learn to play the guitar.  He takes side trips to explain some science, if you will, behind learning music. Did we mention Dr. Marcus is a professor of cognitive psychology? He exposes as weak the "conventional wisdom that by the time we are adults it's too late to learn anything new." He explains that until recently, "[v]irtually everybody in developmental psychology was a firm believer in "critical periods" of learning." He explains that "the more people have actually studied critical periods, the shakier the data have become." He ponders that "[i]f critical periods aren't quite so firm as people once believed, a world of possibility emerges for the many adults who harbor secret dreams." You might learn something too -- even if you are an adult. Heck, you too might even dream. Read this fun self-study to find out whether Dr. Marcus can rock.


      Mr. Heller encapsulates the past and present, pitfalls and prospects, and pundits and professors of online teaching at the university level. Not surprisingly, Mr. Heller finds controversy. It is not a theoretical debate, however. It is playing out as you read this. It seems from Mr. Heller's review that it is not a matter of whether but how at least some university courses will be taught online. Though Mr. Heller limited this article to higher education, it will make you ponder the prospects for learning at all levels. 


     In 1955, Mr. Flesch explained simply and eloquently that we teach reading incorrectly. Indeed, we don't teach reading at all. We essentially abandon children to figure it out recognizing that somehow most will. Yet, we know that a very large number will fail. We then set out to "remediate" them by begrudgingly using proven methods of reading instruction. All the while, those who somehow figure out how to read rarely learn how to spell very well. We wonder why they can't or don't want to write. Mr. Flesch explains how reading should be taught and provides plenty of guidance. Yet, more than 50 years on little has changed. This book might ought to be republished today. 

Schools Cannot Do It Alone
By Jamie Robert Vollmer

     One particular line deep in stuck with me: "... The public is not moving away from these schools because they are dissatisfied, they are dissatisfied because they have moved away." You have to think about that for a minute. Well, I did anyway. Our public schools are webs of culture in our communities not because all citizens know what's going on in them but rather despite the fact that they don't. Most of us have fuzzy, inaccurate recollections of what school was like for us and think that's how they are supposed to be, inviolate. So, change comes hard. In fact, our public schools do an incredible job given the resources of which they are deprived despite the multitude of missions with which they've been charged.  Still, they need help. Help that is not going to come from governments or corporations whether national or local. The help must come from the communities which those schools serve - our communities - because Schools Cannot Do It Alone. This is a great read. No, a must read if you are at all interested in the future of your community or at least how we might teach everyone in it to read.


     Dr. Shaywitz explains the scientific recognition of dyslexia which helps us better understand the paradox of smart people who can't read. In the process, she exposes us to the tremendous struggle of dyslexics and those who try to help them. More, she offers a framework to ease the strife of the child who is by most thought to be lazy if not stupid. We also learn that dyslexia need not define the person. Many who have struggled to read their entire lives have become leaders in their fields. Along the way, she admits that we do not know how or why most children will learn to read with little instruction. But, a vast many won't because of either dyslexia or "experience," including impoverished lives or ineffective teaching. 

     It still nags at me that dyslexia is defined by (1) reading difficulty (2) despite good intelligence and (3) "adequate schooling" or "effective classroom instruction." Dr. Shaywitz notes that "all children can be taught to read." She writes at length about how reading should be taught. But, if reading isn't taught how Dr. Shaywitz prescribes don't we have to ask whether the schooling was "adequate" or the instruction "effective"? And, if we know how to teach all children to read why don't we? 

     Dr. Shaywitz describes what has become the norm in schools public and private: send children to school, wait for many to fail while hoping to "diagnose" them as early as possible, and then remediate hoping they'll catch up. Infuriatingly, we know that the vast majority who fall behind will never catch up. I can't tell whether Dr. Shaywitz is advocating for this model or simply taking it as a given with no hope that it might change. "Overcoming Dyslexia" does not tackle the greater issue of stopping illiteracy. Still, it is well worth studying for the treasure of information it contains if not the questions it begs.


     This is one of the most frustrating books I have read about children learning to read. Let me give you just a couple of examples. Dr. Willingham's principal thesis is that, “Raising a reader arguably begins and ends with motivation. If the child lacks decoding skills or the background knowledge to support comprehension, she’ll gain them through reading, and if she’s motivated she’ll read.” Curiously, he later chides “whole-word advocates” for thinking that if we “provide rich, authentic literacy experiences; start with words, not letters; and teach children to use all the sources of information available - they will figure out the letter-sound correspondences as they go.” His thesis seems to me to be exactly what he criticizes about the whole-word approach. Perhaps it’s just me, but I understood that those kids who struggle to read need direct, explicit instruction rather than just a vibe about how fun it is to read. 

        Practically the entire book focuses on motivating kids to want to read. But, Dr. Willingham assumes they can. Indeed, he opines that “… kids who start earlier learn to decode earlier. But by age eleven, everyone, including the late starters, is a good decoder.” Here he cites no “scientific” evidence or statistical sources. What happened to all those kids who fail at reading in the second, third and fourth grades and need years of remediation (if any is available to them)? Admittedly, he notes that “phonics instruction is important.” He jumps from there to the fact that “it’s possible to learn to read without [phonics]” but notes that “systematic phonics instruction maximizes the odds that everyone in the class will learn to read.” So, he encourages parents to know whether their child’s school uses a systematic phonics program. Yet, he doesn’t tell us how parents are supposed to know what to ask. He doesn’t bother to explain what a systematic phonics program is. He doesn’t tell parents how to tell if the program is working for their child and what to do if it isn’t, which will be some 40-50% of the time. Hopefully, this book won’t simply allow schools to feel good about their haphazard approach to reading instruction which leaves vast numbers of children to struggle with reading not for lack of motivation but because they assume they are stupid because they can’t read at all.

     Here is a very practical, understandable collection of writings which together provide an insightful overview of the literacy challenges we face as a nation. Though they were seemingly assembled to arm advocates, the essays bring perspective to the multidimensional movement to bring effective reading instruction into America’s classrooms. This book should be in the library of anyone interested in literacy. More particularly, if you want to understand why so many kids struggle to read, the impact this struggle has on them and their families, how parents might advocate for not only their children but for all children and how one person can effect change, this book is for you. It will also help you understand why, a decade on, little has changed. Yet, that you’ve made it to this book brings hope.