If you can read, it probably seems like everyone can, and it seems like literacy is no big deal. In reality, it is a very big deal. One in seven U.S. adults can’t read. Let that sink in for a moment. That’s about 14%. In a group of 100 people, about 14 of them can’t read. On a global level, 774 million people are illiterate and two-thirds of those are women.
I’ll admit that I have taken literacy for granted. My mother taught me to read when I was 3 or 4 (she says I taught myself, but I’m not sure I believe that), and I can’t remember not being able to read. Not only can I read, but I read well (and in more than one language), so I have access to more printed material than I could ever consume. These days, though, I am keenly aware that there are millions of women in this country and abroad who can’t read and, as a result, don’t have the opportunities that I do. I am now profoundly grateful.
Literacy is not just about economic opportunity. For many people it is about survival.
Almost twenty-five years ago, I was teaching a bilingual (Spanish-English) 4th grade class in southern California. It was that year that I learned how much literacy really matters. I had a young girl in my class that year named Elena. Elena was a very bright girl with excellent literacy skills in Spanish. Her command of spoken English, however, was very basic, and our school district had very specific guidelines for English reading. One of the criteria was the achievement of conversational fluency in English. As a new teacher, I was following district procedures by not including Elena in my English reading group, but I was working with her intensively on developing her English conversational skills.
Until my first meeting with her mother in October that year.
Elena’s mother met with me to find out why her daughter wasn’t learning English reading. I carefully explained the district’s transition procedures, and I showed her Elena’s assessment results. Based on her current level of performance, it was likely that Elena would begin transition in 5th grade – next year. I was arrogantly confident that I was on the right track with this student, and that I was doing the right thing.
Then, this articulate and kind mother began explaining her situation to me. Elena was the oldest of 6 children. Her father abandoned the family in Mexico two years before, so Elena’s mother was a single mother in a new country, living with friends, working as a janitor in an industrial complex. She spoke almost no English herself.
She was calm as she told most of her story, but her voice cracked as she started describing her other children. The youngest was rather sickly, she explained, and while she had medical insurance through her job, she couldn’t read the written instructions provided by the doctor. Then she started crying as she pulled about 6 prescription bottles from her purse. She put them on the table and looked up me, speaking very slowly and deliberately. Elena needed to be able to read English NOW so she could read the instructions on the prescription bottles.
I got it. For the first time in my life, I really got it. Literacy (in English) for this family was about survival. It was about keeping a child alive. I felt ashamed.
I promised her that Elena would be reading in English within a few months (that was definitely a young teacher’s arrogant promise). In the short run, I could help her by translating the labels of those prescription bottles into Spanish and taping the translations onto the bottles. I told her she could bring me anything else she needed translated. She did. We became good friends.
The next day I sat down with Elena and we made a plan. I moved her into my English reading group (secretly, so my principal wouldn’t know I was breaking district policy) and I started working with Elena after school using a variety of literacy development approaches. She worked hard and she made excellent progress in both her conversational English and her English literacy skills. We practiced with the things her mother needed her to read – medicine labels, over the counter drug labels, cleaning product labels, the TV Guide (for her younger siblings), notes from teachers of her younger siblings. She was reading by Christmas.
She and her mother were very grateful, and I learned some valuable lessons. I never took my own literacy for granted again, and I never held a student back from learning something they wanted to learn after that. I became a believer in teachable moments, and I took district instructional policies as guidelines, rather than directives.
My first administrative job was as director of a family literacy program.
If you can read this, you should be very grateful because millions of people can’t.
This was originally published here, on this blog, in October 2010. Minor modifications ahve been made.