Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Why Johnny Can't Read? Part 5: Environmental Resources

I grew up 70 years ago in a lower-middle class suburb, with a bunch of other lower middle class kids. When I was a school aged child, I would walk across the street to my newly opened school. My mother would give me breakfast and watch me leave the house and then watch me enter the school when the bell rang. There was a crossing guard to help me cross the street safely. In the school, I was welcomed by a well-qualified, usually veteran teacher to a classroom of about 30 children all seated at nearly new desks. The room was well stocked with text books. Once a week I went down to the school library to borrow books. The librarian was there to help me find a book or do some research for a report.

I went home for lunch, other students stayed to eat in the cafeteria. At recess I played kickball or basketball of dodgeball with the other kids in the large playground with equipment provided by the school. After school I could be a part of the school chorus or art club, or model airplane club or any other of a number of activities. When I got home my mother was there to greet me. I did my homework in a room with a desk, a lamp, and a set of World Book Encyclopedias. My mother got me a membership in a kids book club that sent me a new novel to read each month. At night, my mother would read to me and tuck me into bed.

I was safe. I was well fed. I had access to reading and learning. In other words, I was set up for literacy success.

For too many children in our society, the story I just told above is a fairy tale. The neighborhood they walk through to school is fraught with danger. They may arrive at school hungry. When they get to the school they may find an aging building suffering from years of budget cuts and patchwork repairs. text books may be old, out of date or non-existent. The library is shuttered and the librarian furloughed years ago. The nurse visits the school once a week because she is the nurse for five schools. The classroom is crowded. The teacher possibly new and inexperienced because of rapid turnover. At home, books and a place for study may be luxuries that are out of reach.

These children are not safe. They may not be well fed. They may not have access to reading and learning. In other words they have been set up for literacy failure.

I am not arguing here for a return to some idealistic 1950s Wonderama of a world that existed only in my mind and is unrealistic in the modern world. What I am arguing is that if children do not have the basic environmental resources of safe shelter, food security, welcoming school buildings, adequate teaching staff, libraries and librarians, we cannot expect them to excel in academic pursuits. The few children who overcome these handicaps and do excel are the exceptions that prove the rule. As a society we have systematically created a system designed to make many children fail and then we have tried to blame the parents, the teachers, the school leaders, or even the children themselves for these failures.

Learning to read and write is hard work. It depends on a child first of all feeling safe and well fed and healthy so that energy can be devoted to learning. If our society is serious about wanting to improve reading and writing abilities, we need to start with improving those factors that can inhibit learning. That means a community school that not only provides the basics of literacy instruction, but the wrap around services of food, health care, and community outreach that treat all aspects of learning preparedness. It means having adequate counsellors in every building and adequate health care professionals in every building.

Next, we need to address literacy resources. If children have few books at home, we must make sure they get books in the home. That means in school libraries and librarians, it means re-opening community libraries, and it means taking advantage of programs that put books in children's hands. It also means filling the classrooms with up to date textbooks and novels and non-fiction books that are right at the children's fingertips when they need them. It means, in the digital age, making sure that digital capability is available to all students both at the school and at home.

Another resource we have to bring to children is experience. Experiences that children have are the underpinnings of reading comprehension. We comprehend text by measuring the world of the book against the world that we have experienced. Educators can play two roles here. One role is obvious. For children who have had limited opportunity to explore the world beyond the neighborhood, field trips and visiting presentations should be regular occurrences. These are often things that are early cuts in a tight budget, but these cuts come at a cost.

Second, teachers must keep a close eye on the reading material chosen for children. To what extent do the materials being used in literacy instruction mirror the experience of the children? Children are constantly gathering experiences, but the experience they gather may not be present in the books they are offered. Providing the children with material relevant to their own experience can form an important bridge to comprehension. When I was in school the clean, scrubbed, white suburban world of Dick and Jane may have ben adequate for my learning, but we can't assume that is true of children today. Children need to be able to see themselves in the literacy materials we provide as well as in the teacher's chair at the front.

Research has shown that simply supplying children with books over the summer reduced the impact of summer reading loss. Here is a resource that will point you to places where you can get free books for kids. Reading Rockets also has some excellent suggestions for finding free books right here. As for experiences, here is a list of outdoor experiences that encourage reading. You can find my Tips for Reading Aloud with Your Child here.

Healthy, safe, well-nourished children are prepared to learn. When these children also have the resources of plenty of reading material, current textbooks, digital access, libraries, pleasant learning environments, rich life experiences, and knowledgeable teachers the odds are tilted in their favor.

Next Up: Quality of Instruction

Other posts in this series;
Why Johnny Can't Read? It's Complicated, Ms. Hanford
Why Johnny Can't Read? Part 2: Income Inequity
Why Johnny Can't Read? Part 3: Racism and Segregation

Why Johnny Can't Read? Part 4: Brain-Based Reading Difficulties

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