Consider this statement:
“An alarming number of children in the U.S. never become accomplished musicians.”
Well, okay. I’m thinking that shouldn’t be a surprise. Becoming an accomplished musician takes years of coaching, tons of practice and unflagging dedication to refining one’s technique.
Okay, so instead, what if I asked you to consider,
“An alarming number of children never become competitive athletes.”
Well, I think you might have the same response to the athlete comment as I did to the one about musicians.
Now that we have a baseline for responses to what constitutes “alarming” news, here’s an actual assertion that I read recently:
“An alarming number of children in the U.S. never become good readers.”
What’s your response to that statement? How does it compare to your responses to the other two statements?
Me? I don’t think any one would ever actually utter the first two statements. I mean, there are comments to be made as to how it’s a shame that everyone doesn’t learn to play an instrument or sing, and there’s much to be said about fitness and exercise, but I don’t think anyone would find it actually alarming that a particular person or subgroup of people can’t play the saxophone or sprint around the block without generating a wheeze. Those two realities are unfortunate perhaps, but they’re not alarming.
Now, as for the third statement, it’s true and sad that some of us never become “good” readers, and by that I mean some of us grow old unable to comfortably enjoy a self-selected book and always struggle to navigate the print materials necessary to conduct business and personal affairs. What’s sadder, most of us don’t find this particularly alarming.
I am alarmed, however, and not just because literacy is my life’s work. Given the educational and library resources in most U.S. communities with few obvious exceptions for those with significant handicaps, I feel there really is no excuse for anyone not to become quite good at reading for their own enjoyment and personal business.
I feel this way for two reasons.
First, reading is mostly very private and occurs outside of the school context, so there should be no social pressure to learn to read at any particular rate.
Second, there is no age restriction to learning to read. People as young as 3 and as old as 93 have learned to read. Within a very short time frame, each can find joy in reading books of their personal choice, be it Frog and Toad or the Bible. Those not in school also never need to feel rushed in making their way to literacy. They are never told what materials they have to read, and they aren’t required to sit and work in such materials only with their literacy or age-level counterparts. They are free to ask questions, try things, talk about their progress and share their most recent challenges with their loved ones. They are in it for themselves and thus can take joy in the journey without much concern for meeting some arbitrary deadline.
Under these circumstances, I would suggest that if supplied with enough of what each individual might consider delightful books to choose from, and offered ready access to capable readers with whom new readers might ask to read or of whom they might ask questions, pretty much anybody who wished to learn to read in their home language could do so .
So, we get everybody a library card, fund libraries at appropriate levels to meet what would surely be heightened demand for books and librarians, and challenge every reader of any age to lovingly support every non-reader they know.
If we all get involved in ways we feel good about, it could make a significant difference…and be great fun!