What does linguistic diversity have to do with National Literacy Month? Well, it all started back in 1966 when the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) officially proclaimed September 8th as International Literacy Day (ILD). Since then, International Literacy Day observance and celebrations have taken place globally to remind the public of the importance of literacy for all. The ability to read proficiently is a matter of human rights and dignity, and the goal of ILD is to advance the literacy agenda toward a more literate and sustainable society for all. And while progress has been made, challenges still persist.
This year’s ILD theme is "Literacy and Multilingualism."1 Despite strides being made, achievement gaps still exist in countries across the globe and opportunity and funds for education remain unevenly distributed. Taking steps to embrace linguistic diversity in the classroom and literacy development is critical to addressing literacy challenges. Here, we'll explore how race, language and literacy affect students in the U.S., and ways teachers can celebrate National Literacy Month and help close the achievement gap.
American Literacy as a Privilege
As the U.S. observes September as National Literacy Month and students begin to return to the classroom, we're reminded of the challenges our country faces regarding the literacy rate and access to reading. But in order to fully understand why our country is facing a literacy crisis, we must look at our history. From the birth of our nation, literacy was a means of social control and oppression. The ability to read and the means to learn were essentially reserved for privileged, upper-class white men. By only providing education to a select group, the class system was preserved and the poor remained powerless. Those in power understood that literacy represented power, and once people could read, they could access information and understand their rights.
It's unsurprising that some southern states have lower literacy rates when you consider that most wealthy people in the 17th century retained private tutors for their children, while in the New England states public schools were available. This method of privatizing education in the south helped ensure that the poorer populations were kept in a cycle of perpetual helplessness. The 19th and 20th centuries were when the most growth in education and popular literacy were seen, but some areas of the country lag behind in terms of literacy rate.2
America's Melting Pot and the Literacy Rate
In the U.S., the literacy rate varies widely between racial and socioeconomic groups. And while minority and immigrant populations continue to grow in our country, they remain low in educational achievement. The reading process usually begins at home, ideally with parents reading to their children at an early age, and then helping them to learn and practice reading as they get older. With an influx of immigrants whose native language is not English, a significant amount of students enter the school system without the at-home support to develop the reading skills necessary to participate in our society.
According to the Center for Immigration Studies, 41 percent of adult immigrants score at or below the lowest level of English literacy and 28 percent have not completed high school. This limits access to higher education and better employment opportunities and increases the likelihood of living in poverty. Hispanic immigrants in particular struggle with English literacy, with 63 percent of the population scoring below the basic level of literacy.3 Reports also show that one in four American families is categorized as low-income, with parents who lack the education and skills to improve their economic status.4 The lack of time and resources for low-income parents to read with their children put these students at a distinct disadvantage.
The Achievement Gap and Its Cost
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 18 percent of black and 20 percent of Hispanic fourth-graders are rated as "proficient" in reading, compared with 46 percent of white students4 This is a considerable achievement gap, caused in part by our country’s inability to embrace multilingualism in education and beyond. The cost of not being able to read proficiently can affect families for generations. Reading is a critical pathway to freedom, whether financially, socially or even literally. Statistics show that two out of three students who cannot read proficiently by the end of fourth grade will end up in jail or on welfare.5
Illiteracy keeps people trapped in a cycle of poverty, limits their life choices and often has tragic consequences such as poorer health. For many students, underachievement displayed as early as fourth grade appears to be a strong predictor of rates of high school and college graduation, as well as lifetime earnings. The achievement gap affects more than nuclear families, it affects this country's economy. The persistence of education achievement gaps between minority students and white students imposes the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession.6 However, the wide variation in performance from schools and education systems serving similar students implies that the opportunity and output gaps that affect today's achievement gap can be closed by a considerable amount.
What Educators Can Do
Realistically, not all schools and teachers have the same amount of funding. It can be a struggle just to get the basic tools necessary to guide students successfully through a school year. But for those who are invested in instilling a love of reading in their students, there are programs and exercises you can help implement, which can be especially important in classrooms with linguistic diversity. Here are ways that school districts, schools and teachers can help close the achievement gap and boost child literacy.
- "Two Generation" programs that help both students and their parents with things like education, job training and community assistance7
- Prioritize literacy instruction from kindergarten to 12th grade to ensure that students graduate at or above grade level
- For immigrant students whose parents need assistance mastering English, there are language acquisition programs to help elevate literacy levels8
- Forming a class book club with a reward system to encourage recreational reading
- Working with the local library and community organizations to provide books directly to families
Frederick Douglass once said, "Once you learn to read, you will forever be free."" The work teachers do daily, and during National Literacy Month, helps to solve the literacy crisis our country is facing. By involving families in literacy instruction and offering multigenerational approaches to reading, you can change students' futures. And by carrying the theme of National Literacy Day throughout the year, you can provide better outcomes for your students, your community, and our nation. So join us in celebrating National Literacy Day on September 8th, and help us carry that momentum year-round.
If you'd like to make a greater impact in your students' lives, consider how earning an online master's in reading education from a Top 10 Best Education School (among public universities)9 can help you achieve your goals.
1. Retrieved on August 15, 2019, from en.unesco.org/commemorations/literacyday
2. Retrieved on August 15, 2019, history.org/foundation/journal/winter11/literacy.cfm
3. Retrieved on August 15, 2019, cis.org/Immigrant-Literacy-Self-Assessment-vs-Reality
4. Retrieved on August 15, 2019, commonsensemedia.org/research/children-teens-and-reading
5. Retrieved on August 15, 2019, nces.ed.gov/surveys/piaac/results/summary.aspx
6. Retrieved on August 15, 2019, dropoutprevention.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/ACHIEVEMENT_GAP_REPORT_20090512.pdf
7. Retrieved on August 15, 2019, ncsl.org/research/human-services/two-generation-strategies-toolkit.aspx
8. Retrieved on August 15, 2019, ncela.ed.gov
9. Retrieved on August 15, 2019, usnews.com/best-graduate-schools/top-education-schools/edu-rankings