Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

Whatever the intellectual quality of the education given our children, it is vital that it include elements of love and compassion, for nothing guarantees that knowledge alone will be truly useful to human beings.

His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama

Humans have been reading at least since the late fourth millennium BCE, when pictographic script was first etched into clay tablets with the original stylus, a writing tool sharp enough to leave an impression. And explicit reading instruction in English—directly teaching the links between letters and sounds—has been going on since the sixteenth century. 

But it’s just been in the last several decades that we’ve had the benefit of rigorous experiments, massive data sets, and targeted technologies to illuminate how kids learn to read: the earliest roots of reading in children’s lives and parents’ critical role in sustaining them. Perhaps this new knowledge can push us from literacy for the elite to literacy for all.

There are crucial prereading and early-reading subject areas that parents are especially well-equipped to teach kids, with love and lightness, in daily life. They include oral language, speech-sound awareness, and letter-knowledge skills that research shows are critically important for later reading skills­. They also include the simple work of familiarizing kids with books and how print works, as well as the more advanced work of matching letters to sounds (and sounds to letters).

Are there other things that parents can and should do to nurture literacy? Absolutely. But these are meaningful, life-altering, often-overlooked areas that are well within our capacity to start addressing (and, yes, teaching) today. 

Although abilities like these tend to show up in preschool and kindergarten screenings, they apply to a much wider age span—I’d say from birth to 116, given the remarkable story of a woman named Mary Walker, born in 1848.

Walker’s dream of literacy, beautifully told in Rita Lorraine Hubbard’s picture book The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read, was deferred through slavery and sharecropping, through the lives of two husbands and three sons, and the administrations of twenty-six presidents of the United States. She learned at last at 116 years old, and read until her death at age 121 on December 1, 1969.

“She studied the alphabet until her eyes watered,” Hubbard wrote. “She memorized the sounds each letter made and practiced writing her name so many times that her fingers cramped… She studied and studied, until books and pages and letters and words swirled in her head while she slept. One fine day Mary’s hard work paid off. She could read!”

Literacy is still deferred for too long for too many, for lack of a strong foundation. I know a high school literacy coach whose job is to give teachers strategies to help teenagers who can’t read make sense of the science, math, social studies, and other course content in class. Imagine being expected to learn advanced content with no understanding of the printed information in textbooks and classroom materials. 

When she can, the coach pulls students out of class to tutor them in the basics of letter-sound associations that they never mastered in elementary or middle school. It’s not a service she expected to provide high schoolers, but one they desperately need. And who will be there to help them when they struggle after they graduate—or drop out?

Would-be readers of any age must master the basics. There are areas of study that just cannot be skipped.

Edited and reprinted with permission from Reading for Our Lives by Maya Payne Smart, published by AVERY, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.

Copyright © 2022 by Maya Payne Smart.

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