“You Don’t Have to Be Some Great Reader”

From today’s edition of POLITICO’s Morning Education:

HILLARY CLINTON REVISITS EARLY ED: Hillary Clinton told the Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters last night that she would like to see the number of families the program serves “grow exponentially” in the coming years. Clinton spoke at the organization’s annual awards dinner. She touted the benefits of early education and the Clinton Foundation’s “Too Small to Fail” initiative, which encourages parents to read and talk to their children. A mother told Clinton recently that she couldn’t read very well. “I said ‘You’re talking to a 6-month-old. Just hold the book, tell a story, point to pictures,'” Clinton said. “You don’t have to be some great reader.’ (my emphasis)

I understand the well-intentioned point here: all parents, whatever their literacy level, can and should talk with their kids and introduce them to books and other printed materials. Which is fine, but the fact is, a parent’s poor literacy really can have a huge negative impact on the literacy development of their children.(See here, here, and especially here, for example). We should encourage individual parents with poor literacy skills to introduce books to their kids as best they can, but that doesn’t mean that parents with low literacy skills isn’t a problem. Suggesting otherwise will lead to unwise policy choices.

Let’s Have More Readers AND More Coders

Readers of this blog know that I’m very sympathetic to the view that policymakers, from the President on down, do not pay nearly enough attention to U.S. adult literacy rates. So I really appreciate the sentiment behind arguments like this one—especially the idea that we’d get a bigger payoff if we focused our efforts (and dollars) on those in poverty and/or those who are struggling the most.

But I don’t understand why encouraging kids to take up computer programming can’t be part of this efforts. I feel pretty confident that Computer Science Education Week is not the reason we have low adult literacy rates in this country. It’s true that literacy skills are important foundational skills for other disciplines, including computer programming. But that doesn’t mean that they have to literally come first, before anything else. For some computer-loving reluctant readers, literacy instruction in the context of learning about computer science and programming is probably going to be a really good way to reach them. I’m as pro-literacy as you can get, but I don’t want to be in a position of debating whether kids should be learning coding or reading. The question is whether we are providing all children with opportunities to learn about whatever it is that grabs them—and yes, preparing them with the foundational skills to take advantage of those opportunities, but also, I think, continuing to embed sound literacy instruction into every discipline as they move along.

It’s also worth noting that the latest estimates we have about adult skills (Iglesias is using the old NAAL data in his post) show that adult math skills are an even bigger problem than adult literacy, and so encouraging interest in computer science or other math-related subjects might be prudent for this reason as well.

Low Literacy Households

Interesting comment to this Walt Gardner column in Education Week on the role of parents in literacy development:

The solution is to immerse children from low literacy households in literacy rich environments from as early an age as possible.

Unless you are planning to remove children from their homes entirely, children from low literacy households are still going to spend the majority of their time outside of those literacy rich environments.

Business Models

Offering fee-based services for those who can afford it, in order to generate income to support free ESL/literacy services for those who can’t, makes a lot of sense—especially contracts with other organizations and businesses for custom-designed services. This  isn’t a new idea, but it’s probably something more organizations that provide community-based literacy instruction ought to be looking at. I just can’t see a scenario in the near future in which government funding (federal, state, or local) for adult literacy or ESL is likely to substantially increase, and growth in foundation and charitable giving in general  is likely to continue to be pretty flat. At the same time, immigration reform appears to have at least a reasonable chance of passage in the near future, and if it does, that will  likely  open up even more opportunities for fee-based English language instruction and translation services.