A few days ago I encountered an article in the New York Times about American citizens writing letters to random detainees along the southern border of our country. This effort gives the authors of the letters an outlet for the guilt and frustration they feel about not being able to do anything for the incarcerated individuals and families who are currently suffering because of what the authors believe is an injustice.
This effort also represents Americans reaching into the isolation of incarceration from the world only a few hundred yards away to touch people who may be frightened and despondent about their situations.
Regardless of where each of us falls on the spectrum of responses to what’s taking place on the southern border of the U.S.A., we can all appreciate the simple act of putting kind and consoling words on paper and delivering them to people too far away to reach face to face. It is terrific for sender and receiver, and represents the essence of literate activity.
The formula is a simple one. An individual uses writing tools to communicate feelings or information across space (and time) with another individual or group. All the timeless books in the library and all of the timely newspapers and magazines that we see every day share in supporting this uniquely human activity.
Teaching children to read and write with that same kind of joy requires that they come to appreciate this fundamental concept of communication. Literacy is about authors sending messages to their audiences. The absence of this vital concept of literacy is a condition shared by many of those who struggle with learning to read and write. They may inadvertently have been taught at home or directly taught at school that reading and writing are about mastering letters, letter sounds and words. This position is the equivalent of seeing architecture as simply a combination of wood, bricks and mortar. As such, it lacks purpose and humanity.
While letter sounds and words are important for everyone to learn, the overarching idea that makes writing and reading worth doing from day one is clarity of communication between authors and audiences. This idea is what elevates rote memory tasks, devoid of compelling content, into problem solving—creative challenges intimately shared through writing.
Teaching reading and writing should have as its foundation the understanding that new readers benefit in some personally important way from what they read and that young authors convey their thoughts and feelings by crafting personally important letters (messages), not just letters (characters).
Individuals who write consoling letters to detainees are not merely writing letters and words as much as they are expressing caring and well-wishes with individuals and families who have found themselves in dire circumstances.