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Why K-12 Educators Should Worry About Adult Literacy

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    Despite these salient characteristics of low-literate adults, adult literacy is (at least

    in some quarters) perceived to be a problem in the United States. This perception is

    based largely on periodic claims by business and industry leaders, and the occasional

    social commentator, that the literacy skills of a sizeable portion of adults in the labor

    force are not sufficient to meets the demands of a rapidly-changing, highly-technological,

    and information-saturated workplace (Fiske, 1988). The results of the 1993 National

    Adult Literacy Survey (Kirsch et al., 1993) also found that nearly half of adults ages 16

    and older demonstrated significant problems with some literacy tasks, such as

    interpreting a bus schedule or finding information in a brief news magazine article. Giventhe collective power of both anecdotal and empirical evidence of an adult literacy

    problem, there are efforts to locate the sources of this problem. For some, particularly

    those who are critical of public education, one source is the lack of correct and

    effective literacy instruction in school.

    Over the past decade or more, educators, literacy researchers, politicians, and the

    public have been embroiled in the most recent round of the reading wars, that have

    pitted at least two groups of literacy advocates against one another (Coles, 2000; Fletcher

    & Lyon, 1998; Foorman, Francis, Fletcher, Schatschneider, & Mehta, 1998; Goodman,

    1998). On one side are those who advocate a return to basics in reading, with a focus

    on phonics instruction, skill development in word decoding, and phonemic awareness

    (Grossen, 1997). On the other side are those who promote the kind of reading instruction

    where students are immersed in all aspects of languagereading, speaking, writing, and

    listening (Goodman, 1998). This is the whole language method, whereby literacy skills

    are said to develop naturally whenever the right environmental conditions exist. More

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    Adults who struggle with literacy are likely to have children who will struggle with

    literacy.

    In 1985, the national report Becoming A Nation of Readers called upon parents to

    monitor their childrens progress in school, become involved in school programs,

    support homework, buy their children books or take them to libraries, [and] encourage

    reading as a free time activity (p. 117). This statement explicitly recognizes the

    importance that home and parenting factors have in influencing childrens reading

    achievement (Baker, Sher, & Mackler, 1997). Parents serve as literacy role models for

    their children long before the children enter school by reading to them, readingthemselves (and thereby demonstrating the importance of reading), and making literacy

    materials available to their children (Hiebert, 1981; Teale, 1986). We know, for example,

    that young children whose parents read to them tend to become better readers and do

    better in school (Anglum, Bell, & Roubinek, 1990; Feitelson & Goldstein, 1986;

    Goldfield & Snow, 1984). Once children enter school, then parents need to be involved

    and to communicate with them (and their teachers) about their schoolwork and activities.

    Evidence suggests, however, that whenever parents are unable to model literacy

    and reinforce the literacy practices of their children, these children often struggle to

    acquire school literacy. Fortunately, even adults whose reading, writing, and math skills

    are very poor are usually able to engage in some literacy-related interactions. Several

    ethnographic studies have shown these interactions to be adaptive for particular aspects

    of literacy development (Heath, 1984; Taylor, 1985; Taylor & Dorsey-Gaines, 1988).

    These interactions include behaviors such as asking questions to get specific information,

    storytelling, and family discussions of daily events. Thus, we shouldnt assume that

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    children whose caregivers cant read, cant read well, or dont like to read, are lacking in

    opportunities for literacy (Taylor & Dorsey-Gains, 1988). Some parents may not,

    however, recognize the value of these behaviors for promoting their childrens literacy.

    Also, the learning opportunities that some children have may not be of sufficient quality

    or in line with the literacy experiences they need, or will be exposed to, in school.

    Not every child of low-literate parents or caregivers will have literacy problems,

    of course. Those parents who value education and learning will do the things necessary to

    help their children acquire literacy despite their own lack of literacy and related academic

    skills. To the extent possible, teachers need to be aware of, and sensitive to, parentsliteracy difficulties, and offer assistance and support to them whenever possible. For

    example, teachers can send home materials that can be understood and used by low

    literate adults, such as audiotapes and videos. Teachers can emphasize to parents how

    important it is to demonstrate and explain to children how to do things. Schools can also

    provide information to parents about local literacy education programs for adults. Family

    literacy educators, and school reading specialists, can be a good source of information for

    teachers and can help them develop strategies to assist low-literate parents.

    These strategies can include not just recommendations to read to their children,

    but also brief instruction in how to read to them. That, is, parents may need to learn that

    they should direct their childs attention to the story, to ask their child questions about the

    story, and to label or describe pictures. Some parents will need help in knowing what

    kinds of questions to ask. As Patricia Edwards (1995) and other family literacy educators

    have pointed out, teachers should not assume that parents possess this knowledge. It is

    interesting to note that there is very little literature advocating that family literacy, early

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    childhood, and primary grades educators should collaborate in regards to these literacy

    learning strategies (but see Project FLAME; Shanahan, Mulhern, & Rodriguez-Brown,

    1995). Despite this, there is some evidence that literacy gains are most robust in those

    programs where comprehensive services are offered to parents and children (Rodriguez-

    Brown, 1998).

    Some recent federal legislation may have the effect of mandating these

    comprehensive services for students and parents in the near future. Last week, the U.S.

    House of Representatives approved the Literacy Involves Families Together (LIFT) Act.

    The intent of this legislation is to improve and expand family literacy services by, in part,allowing Even Start Family Literacy programs to serve children older than age 8 if

    schools use Title I funds to pay a portion of the costs. Thus, public schools may come to

    have a greater direct service role in family literacy. The Senate must, however, approve

    the LIFT Act before it can be enacted into law.

    Parents with low literacy are less able to help with their childrens school work, get

    involved in school activities, and communicate with their childrens teachers.

    I remember being astounded, when my oldest child first began school, at the sheer

    amount of print information that was sent home from school in his backpack. There were

    school newsletters, notes from the teacher, homework assignment books, PTA

    announcements, Market Day order forms, notices of upcoming events and cancellations,

    head lice alerts from the school nurse, school policies and student rules of conduct, and

    quite frequently, homework to be completed. I often think about how distressing and

    discouraging it must be for limited-English-proficient parents and other parents who

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    It is easy to view uninvolved parents as unconcerned and uncaring. But, aside

    from lacking the time to visit their childrens schools, some parents may simply believe

    that they lack the skills and knowledge to be of any help. Other parents see teachers as

    the experts and are unlikely to get involved in what they see as the teachers roles (Flores,

    Taft, & Diaz, 1991). It is critical for teachers to reach out to these parents and to bring

    them into the school and classroom in a variety of ways. For example, several years ago,

    Luis Moll (Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzalez, 1992), an educational anthropologist,

    conducted a project in which low-literate Spanish-speaking parents were utilized as

    cultural resources, sharing funds of knowledge that they possessed about a variety of topics

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