Step out into the public, and you will find yourself standing side-by-side with someone who is illiterate. You will never know they are illiterate. They hide their illiteracy, a dark secret they’ve shrouded often from their own spouses. They get by off their excellent memories, working in occupations that don’t require reading and pretending they left their glasses somewhere, “so will you please read this for me?”
ILLITERACY IN AMERICA
Us literates often underestimate the pervasiveness of illiteracy. According to a study done by the US Department of Education and The National Institute of Literacy (2014), 14% of American adults can’t read. Surely, they’re not in this community you say. Surely they’re concentrated somewhere else. No, they are in your community, hidden by our own idea that they do not exist.
Yes, most who are illiterate end up in prison (60% of the prison population can’t read). But some live their entire lives trying to be upstanding citizens, despite truly believing they’re stupid, and despite feeling constantly ostracized from society. Let’s meet one, Nancy, a woman I worked with for a fleeting semester. Then, of course, I went on to live my merry literate life.
AN ADULT LEARNS HOW TO READ
Nancy was dedicated. She took a bus from across town to meet with me, a trip that required walking and waiting through rain and hail and sunshine. But she came. She was skeptical, but optimistic. Can you imagine the humility it takes to allow a 26 year old to teach you how to read (when you’re 52 years old)? I would forgive her immediately if she ever wanted to punch my young literate reading teacher self in the face.
Did she learn how to read? Of course. Systematic phonics instruction works. In fact, it worked rapidly. She went from reading “The cat sat.” to “The kitten sprinted through the garden to catch a bird.”
WHOLE LANGUAGE CLAIMS
Whole language advocates argue that reading is a developmental milestone, that struggling readers will “catch on,” and that moms need to be patient and calm down when they’re child is below grade-level. So I guess, according to those whole language advocates, Nancy’s brain had finally developed enough at 52 years old to learn how to read. Let’s all give a round of applause to that one last neuron in Nancy’s brain. It developed. (Of course, I’m mocking whole language here.)
I got to know Nancy over the course of our sessions. She was a talker. I am a listener. I heard her story and got lost in the heartbreak, the tribulations of going through life without being able to read.
She started feeling stupid in elementary school, when other kids were learning how to read and she wasn’t. Though she has no intellectual disability and is socially gifted, she was placed in special education where still, she didn’t learn how to read.
Finally, in high school she begged her nice tenth grade teacher to help her. “Come to think of it,” the teacher realized, “I don’t know how to teach someone to read!” Nancy then talked to the principle and he said, “We have no program to teach reading. This is high school.” They felt sorry for her and allowed her to graduate.
Nancy’s loving parents told her to “marry well,” which they saw as Nancy’s only chance at a comfortable life.
EMPLOYMENT AND ILLITERACY
She was thrust out into the world. Illiterate in a literate society. She got a job at Burger King, and even landing this job took incredible humility. Her boyfriend helped her fill out the application. After the interview, she sat across from the hiring manager knowing she needed to utter the following words: “I can’t read.” The interview went well. She made him laugh. Would these words ruin it all? “I have to tell you… I can’t read,” she said. “Huh, okay,” he said. “Well, it just means we’ll have you in the back making hamburgers. You’ll never be a cashier.”
While us literates aspire to be lawyers, entrepreneurs, managers, involved parents, Nancy’s aspiration was to be a cashier at Burger King. She looked enviably at those cashiers. They seemed to be getting younger as she entered her thirties. She never got promoted, but she watched numerous young people move from making burgers to “the front.” Nancy said, “I always wanted to be a cashier, because I like people. I hated working in the back because I was alone. There was no one to talk to.”
So she married well.
MOTHERHOOD AND ILLITERACY
Nancy wanted to be a mom. She wanted a big family. After she got married, she had three children. Nancy said, “I thought I had the support of my husband. But we separated.” He was verbally abusive, and she didn’t talk about him much. She was a single illiterate mom working at Burger King? Can you imagine? That she did not perish under the stress is remarkable. She lived on government assistance and minimum wage.
But perhaps most importantly, her children had an illiterate mom. What does that mean? She could not read books to her children. Ever. Since she could not read to her children, she could not develop their vocabularies beyond a second grade level, she could not help them with homework, she could not be their example and read herself and she could not navigate educational and medical systems for them.
“My kids could read, but they were never good readers,” she said. This probably means, they could read, “The kitten sprinted through the garden to catch a bird,” but not “The pensive cat lounged on the sofa and contemplated the meaning of the hideous picture on the wall.” Children of illiterate moms are destined to struggle with reading.
WHOLE LANGUAGE BLAMES MOMS AND KIDS FOR ILLITERACY
Whole language advocates like to tout this fact around as if poor reading is the mom’s fault. But it’s not: the benefits of a reading mom emerge later—after the child already knows how to read. If the child can’t ever read or reads late, then the benefits of a literate mom start diminishing, and all those efforts mom made of reading board books vanish with the horizon.
During our lessons, Nancy’s history sat beside us whispering, “Why couldn’t this have been done 45 years earlier?” Whole language advocates would argue that something was wrong with Nancy’s brain. If that is so, then why, when using systematic phonics, did she learn to read with such ease? Why did she go through the sound patterns quickly? Did another critical neuron really sprout at 52 years old?
In an upcoming post, I will refute the whole language claim that reading is a developmental milestone. Research is NOT on their side. I heard a mom tell me that someone from whole language claimed, “Well the research says whole language works.” I had no idea people even said this. That they claim research is on their side is asinine. Stay tuned for the upcoming post, “Reading is Not a Milestone.”