Literacy is the keystone in the arch of an education

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Both domestically and abroad, education is often touted as the salve for the world’s development woes. Schools and libraries are established in low-income communities to provide solutions. But what good are books and classrooms if we are not instilling the fundamentals of reading in the next generation?

Literacy is the keystone in the arch of an education. Without it, the structure will collapse upon itself and the protective enclosure that promises to lift millions out of poverty would simply be a pile of stone. As we celebrate International Literacy Day on September 8, it’s clear that much work remains.

In his introduction to the 2012 report on The Millennium Development Goals, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon states, “ensuring that all children are able to complete primary education remains a fundamental, but unfulfilled, target that has an impact on all the other Goals.” While the U.N. seeks to ensure that by 2015 children everywhere will be able to complete primary schooling, reading and writing skills acquisition must be a global priority unto itself if we are to reach that goal.

The report also asserts that while strides have been made since 1990 in certain regions of the world, as of 2010 there were still 122 million young people between 15 and 24 years of age who were unable to read and write. Restrained by illiteracy, everyday life is a struggle for these individuals, two-thirds of whom are female.

In the U.S. and impoverished countries, where the highest rates of illiteracy persist, champions of education must focus on ensuring children can read and write familiar words and basic sentences with full comprehension, and express themselves clearly. Those skills are what provide the foundation for success as they continue on in school and in life.

While learning to speak is “hardwired” in children as they develop, learning to read is not. The science of how children learn to read is complex, and both parents and educators must engage youth in activities that encourage progress.

As both a father of three young children and a professional with a passion and career in international education, I have seen firsthand, at home and in the field, the transformational effects of effective lesson plans, story books, picture and word cards, handwriting practice, and dedicated time for reading inside and outside of the classroom.

Studies show that reading and writing instruction at the elementary school level improves the impact of education, and that effective teacher training and the availability of resources that enhance and supplement the existing curriculum can amplify this impact. Key components of literacy such as phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension require explicit approaches to instruction within the classroom, and research findings indicate that allocated instructional time for these elements has a positive effect on student learning outcomes.

To ensure teachers are properly trained and supported, literacy facilitators are needed in many classrooms, especially in countries with inadequate educational infrastructure. Additionally, base-line, mid-line and end-line assessments of both educators and students throughout literacy instruction programs can reflect elementary students’ reading and writing strengths and weaknesses. Well-designed programs will identify students that fall behind and are not obtaining the key skills effectively taught in the classroom, allotting additional instruction time and special attention for remediation. An evidence and research- based design approach to reading and writing curriculums is not just preferable, it is paramount if we are to eradicate illiteracy.

Outside the classroom, it is reasoned that families and community members can play a significant role in preparing and teaching the next generation to read and creating a culture within which a child develops a love of reading. The home environment is one of the most critical components in creating a literate environment and, according to the UNESCO Institute for Education, a very important factor in a child's acquisition of literacy are the reading practices of parents. However, in many rural and remote parts of the world today’s youth represent the first generation with access to reading and writing instruction. Fortunately, experience shows us that even without the requisite of literate parents, these students can achieve lifelong learning and success through supportive role models who prioritize education and encourage reading at home.

So tomorrow (Saturday September 8), as we celebrate International Literacy Day around the world, I pose the question again: What would the world look like if you could not read? Let’s equip the next generation with the right tools so that they do not have to find out.

Dr. Heyman is the chief program officer of Room to Read, a global organization seeking to transform the lives of millions of children across Asia and Africa through literacy and gender equality in education.

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