This fall, my niece was married in Jamaica. I was fortunate to join in the family festivities, and spent a few days relaxing in the south coast for a few days after the wedding. Like I do every time I am on an amazing vacation, I fantasize about living there. The place where we stayed (which I am not going to name, so it stays small!) supports Breds Foundation and one of their projects supports Sandy Bank Primary School. Well, this is fate! My nickname is Sandy and I am a credentialed school teacher! I could come here and teach! I was giving voice to this little fantasy while on a small fishing boat with a local captain. He asked what I taught, and I explained that, as a 5th grade teacher, I taught all subjects, reading, writing, math and all. Captain Clive said, "Well, why don't you just teach me? I don't read very good."
That got me thinking about making an impact on the local economy through adult literacy. I'd need to learn how to teach adults. And if there adults in Jamaica who can't read, there are certainly adults in my city who struggle with literacy. I researched online and signed up to become a tutor of adult learners here in my home town with the Santa Clara Library's Read Santa Clara service. I met with Shanti Bhaskaran, the program supervisor, who seemed thrilled to have someone interested who not only has a teaching background but also experience with educational technology.
During out meeting, she shared some rather startling statistics. More than 30 million adults in the United States cannot read, write or do basic math above a third grade level. Adult literacy impacts our workforce, family finances and heath. And now I come back to the topic of this post. Children of parents who had not completed high school score lower in vocabulary assessments. A mother's level of reading skill is the greatest determinant of her child's academic success. I am not sure it ever occurred to me that some of the parents of my students could not read, write or speak fluently. I know I had some English Language learners, and for those families, I'd arrange translation. But what about the parents who just can't read yet in any language? I was not making accommodations for them.
My first job in education was to help three recent immigrants to the US learn English. My thesis was titled "Effective Classroom Methods for Teaching English Language Learners." I often joked that mu classrooms were like a mini-United Nations, with all the languages spoken at home. Yet not once in my pre-service or in-service professional development was the literacy of parents ever addressed.
I haven't yet been matched with an adult learner, but I am passionate about spreading the word. As teachers we need to be not so quick to judge that parent who doesn't respond to our emails, return permission slips or volunteer in the classroom.
What can we as educators of children do to make a difference? After all, we already differentiate and accommodate for our children, now you want us to do the same for parents? Yup. I do! I am not suggesting we all teach adult literacy classes, But there are things we can do. Be aware of the signs that someone might need help reading or writing. Find out about programs similar to Rad Santa Clara in your area. Get some of their literature and make in available to all families 'in case they know someone who might benefit'. Never call them out directly. But think of how hard it must be to have your child read and write for you. Show some compassion to that parent who might just be too embarrassed to participate in classroom activities or unable to read or reply to your notes home. If not for the parents' sake, for your students'. Remember, your students' literacy will improve along with their parents'.
Signs a person might need help reading and writing:
- Uneasy body language, facial expressions or embarrassment when asked to read or write
- Humor or other distraction is used to change the subject of reading or writing comes up
- School experiences rarely mentions. If they are, it is in a negative light.
- When expected to read or write, excuses might be, "I forgot my glasses,' 'I've hurt my hand,' 'I don't have time.'
- Person appears unable to follow written instructions
- Reluctance to fill in forms or asks to take forms home
- paperwork is filled out incompletely or incorrectly.
NPR's All Things Considered had a 4 part series on Adult Education, where they concluded:
Low literacy rates for adults can have wide-ranging effects on those around them. They may rely more heavily on government services; their children may not get that extra hand with schoolwork; their families may not get sufficient financial support.
But for the millions of adults with low literacy, the ability to read, write and speak English might offer them the most important opportunity of all: a chance to emerge from the shadows and participate as equals in society.I still may end up retiring in Jamaica, but for now, I will make a difference locally.
Read Santa Clara
National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)
NPR: all things considered