Reading the Signs: The Mississippi Literacy Crisis
By Rachel Jaeger
As an English major serving for two years as a campus writing tutor, I distinctly remember the day I learned more from a student than what he learned from me. After receiving poor grades on an assignment, he wanted to do better. I wanted to help, so we dove into his readings. It quickly became clear that this student seriously struggled to read and understand the text, so I walked with him through snippets of Darwin and Nietzsche. When finally approaching opinion-based, worldview questions, he quietly mumbled: “What should I put down?” The alarming reality suddenly struck me: not only did this dear student struggle to read and comprehend, but he struggled to think for himself.
Unfortunately, as a tutor, this case was not the last I encountered. Frighteningly, a significant portion of the U.S. population, approximately 30 million people, is illiterate, according to National Center for Education Statistics. In the state of Mississippi, illiteracy is a severe problem; as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), Mississippi is ranked as #50 in the U.S. when it comes to basic literacy.
For the literate, most would agree that there is a delightful sort of magic in getting lost in the pages of a beloved book. However, literacy is not just a luxury to enjoy in your spare time. It is a necessity. Without literacy, it is difficult to even get a job. It is not surprising that there is a direct link between crime rates and state literacy levels. Current estimations claim that 85% of juvenile delinquents and three out of five inmates in American prisons struggle to read (The Literacy Project Foundation). Voter registration is at an all-time low, which may be attributed to illiteracy; the inability to participate in civic responsibility results in the declining exercise of American rights.
Although bills, education reform, and state budget administration remain hot topics of political debate, the major contributing factor to illiteracy is the absence of reading in family households. Due to difficulties many families face, teaching children to read frequently falls solely to the education systems. Many parents send their kids to school assuming the teachers will teach literacy. Sadly, many children pass through K-12 education and manage to graduate without basic reading skills.
The increased use of technology in the modern world has also contributed to illiteracy. With autocorrect, voice-to-text, and instant entertainment at the touch of a screen, it is no wonder that today’s generation has lost interest in proper spelling, grammar, and reading. Gretchen Cook, publisher of Parents & Kids Magazine and former librarian, suggests that tackling the issue begins with adults: “the bottom line is, we need adults who can read. Kids model their behavior after their parents . . . so parents should be caught reading often.”
Dr. Catherine Wasson, professor of education at Belhaven University, encourages parents to engage their children in everyday activities, such as cooking, that include not only reading but verbal conversation, which she suggests “develops vocabulary as well as the background knowledge necessary for learning new content and skills.”
Parents are the necessary stepping stone in their children’s education. Ashley Burke, a teacher at Jackson Classical Homeschool and former public school educator, addresses parents: “You are your child’s best advocate, but you have to know what you are talking about before you can fight for them. Parents have options! Seek them out and do what’s best for your child.”
The best way to encourage literacy in children is to cultivate a love of reading at home. Here are some tips:
- Read books together as a family. Reading out loud to children is a great bonding experience.
- Work with your child on his or her homework.
- Engage in reading programs at local libraries or book stores.
- Seek out tutoring if your child has learning problems; encourage your child that he or she can overcome the challenges.
- Contact English departments at local colleges and universities for tutors; there are usually undergraduate students who are eager to help and offer low rates.
- Model behavior for children by reading yourself.
Reading is not only a necessary life tool but is a gift that teaches children the power of words, the joy of learning, and the thrill of imagination! Literacy is something that not only needs to be encouraged, but advocated, and advocacy begins with the family.
Rachel Jaeger is a dancer, choreographer, writer, and general bookworm; her passion for literature and scholarship have fostered her desire to share the love of learning and to advocate the life-changing adventures of literacy.