On the heels of the President's address of the dismal dropout rates, the nation is supposed to be observing today Read Across America Day 2010.
For those students who have dropped out of school or who are struggling academically, poor reading skills are a big part of their problem.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, fifty-five percent of the people characterized as "Below Basic" in Prose Literacy, meaning that they have only simple and concrete literacy skills, did not graduate from high school.
The largest ethnic group to comprise the Below Basic population are Latinos. A big factor is language. Forty-four percent of the Below Basic population spoke no English before starting school but that isn't always a recipe for low literacy rates.
Many Latinos spoke/speak only Spanish at home with parents and relatives and English at school with their teachers and didn't suffer from it. In fact, they are the lucky ones who are truly bilingual and find their services much in demand in a down economy.
No, it's something else that is contributing to today's poor literacy rates among Latinos and it goes back to learning how to read, or more precisely how it felt when learning to read.
Anyone who remembers First and Second Grade reading classes remembers being divided into groups according to ability. But everybody knew who was in the high, middle or "slow" group.
As we got older, it got worse when we had to read in front of the whole class and a stumble over a word always provoked a sneer from someone. Some chose to ignore the sneers and plowed on -- they overcame and became good readers.
Some disliked the sneers so badly, they gave up and they became the students who more than likely dropped out of school, unless they had some great athletic talent that somehow hid their deficiency in reading.
Learning to read is more than just sounding out written words.
Reading is about feeling proud when it's accomplished and shame and frustration when it's not.
When enough frustration and shame are involved, reading is not fun. It is something to dread and avoid.
When a student is 15-years-old and can barely read a third grade level book, the shame and embarrassment becomes immense and it's much more desirable to face a truancy court than to lose one's pride before their peers.
To raise literacy rates among those groups considered high-risk for dropping out of school, a program needs to be in place that gets back to the basics of knowing how to instill a love of reading in children.
Yet, at the same time, teachers have to be astute enough to recognize when a student is really having a problem reading, and not jump to the automatic assumption that the child is lazy.
Schools have all kinds of phonetic programs to teach children how to sound out words but hardly anyone teaches children how to read those words with emotion. A teacher has to be an actor/actress when reading to students because they have to make those words come alive.
For young and early elementary school children, that's an easy way to start instilling a love of reading to students and bring students who are shy or unsure of their reading abilities out of their shells.
As children get older, comprehension is really key in developing complex literacy skills. Earning extra credit is always desirable for students as well. Combine the two and let students do reading exercises for extra credit, like reading short stories and answering specific questions about the story, but have the exercise timed.
It's human nature to be competitive and the students compete with themselves to earn their extra credit, at the same time not realizing just how much they're honing their comprehension skills.
By the time these students reach high school, they should be at grade level in their reading skills. However, some students are not. It's important that these students not feel inadequate or embarrassed because they're not where they should be.
For these students, a very special curriculum needs to be developed that takes these students back to the exercises of early elementary but tailored to their current needs.
Before these students can read, they need to want to read. Before they can succeed, they have to achieve it. Before they feel pride, they have to have confidence.
If they're to stay in school, they need to be able to read.