Working to break the cycle of child illiteracy

By Todd Cohen

[Note: This was written for Triangle Community Foundation. I am working with the Foundation as senior communications adviser.]

RALEIGH N.C. — In fourth-grade classrooms across North Carolina, 84 percent of African-American students, 80 percent of Hispanic students and 81 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch scored below the reading level considered proficient for their grade, according to a 2011 study.

And what begins as childhood struggle can become a lifetime of disconnection and despair.

A study in Wake County in 2008 found that most 9th and 10th graders involved in the court system were reading on a first grade or second grade level.

“These kids were being kicked out of school for misbehavior and other reasons, mainly because they couldn’t participate because they couldn’t read,” says Laura Walters, executive director of the Literacy Council of Wake County.

Reginald Hodges, executive director of the Durham Literacy Center, says kids often cannot read or write because of a lack of stimulation in their homes.

“There’s a cycle of illiterate parents passing on their illiteracy to their children,” he says.

A key to improving youth literacy is one-on-one tutoring that uses research-based methods and is adequately supported with ongoing training and peer networks, says Debbie McCarthy, executive director of the Augustine Literacy Project, a nonprofit in Chapel Hill that trains adults who agree to volunteer as tutors for high-risk students in five local school systems.

“Nurture and knowledge combined,” she says, “can mean the difference between prison and productivity for at-risk students.”

The problem

Children who grow up in low-income homes face a lot of obstacles in learning to read, Hodges says.

Their mothers may not have received adequate pre-natal care, causing the children to begin life in poor health, he says, or the parents may be working several jobs to make ends meet, and so may not be able to provide the stimulation kids need to learn how to read.

“The kids fall behind in their language abilities,” he says, and when they begin school, they already lack basic know-how that children from more prosperous homes may have, such as being able to identify colors or know right from left.

“They tend to fall behind in the early grades and they get frustrated,” he says.

“By third grade, most communities can determine who are the kids who are going to drop of school and get into trouble,” he says, “and authorities can use the third grade rates to project how many jail cells are going to be needed.”

A landmark study in 1995 by Betty Hart and Todd Risley that looked at the vocabulary of three-year-olds, found that children in “welfare-recipient” families hear 616 words an hour, on average, compared to 1,251 words an hour for children in “working class” families, and 2,153 words an hour for children in “professional” families.

By age four, children in welfare-recipient families could have heard 32 million fewer words than a classmate from a professional family, said the study, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children.

“That child coming into school is dealing with a 32 million-word deficit,” McCarthy says, “and it’s extremely difficult to make that up.”

McCarthy says kids who can’t read can end up homeless, jobless and in jail or the emergency room.

Keeping kids out of trouble

Growing out of a conversation initiated by the chief court counselor for the Wake County Juvenile Court System in 2008, the Literacy Council of Wake County studied the literacy of children involved in the court system and found that the inability to read was a widespread problem for those kids.

So with initial funding of $36,000 from Wake County, the Council launched the Juvenile Literacy Center, which serves children ages six to 16, assigning them to a volunteer tutor who works with them twice a week for an hour to 90 minutes each session.

The tutoring continues for at least six months, and typically for 10 months to a year, and serves 140 kids a year, on average.

Over 75 percent of children in the program have improved, as measured by their literacy skills, behavior, self-esteem, interpersonal skills and lack of repeat involvement with the courts.

Walters says those kids will have a better chance to “participate fully in society,” get a good job and stay out of trouble.

According to data from 2000, the most recent year for which data are available, she says, 17 percent of adults in Wake County were considered illiterate, meaning they could read only at a third-grade level or lower.

“The Literacy Council is committed to working with these children so they don’t become one of those adults,” Walters says.

Training volunteer tutors

Launched in 1994 as an all-volunteer effort at Holy Family Episcopal Church in Chapel Hill, the Augustine Literacy Project has trained over 800 tutors who have tutored thousand of low-income students reading below their grade level.

The Project, operating with an annual budget of $160,000 and a staff of one person working full-time and two people working part-time, provides 70 hours of free training for people who agree to provide at least 60 free one-on-one lessons to struggling low-income students in their school or after-school program.

Tutors are trained using the Orton-Gillingham methodology, which was developed in the 1920s to reach individuals who struggled to read because of dyslexia, and is “research-based, structured, systematic, multi-sensory and phonics-based,” McCarthy says.

The Project serves children in kindergarten through 12th grade, mainly in elementary school, in the school systems for Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Chatham, Durham, Orange and Wake counties.

The Projects trains 85 to 90 tutors a year, and its tutors in the school year just starting will be working with over 400 students in 124 schools and after-school programs in the Triangle.

The tutoring typically takes place at schools because that makes it easier for kids whose parents or caregivers lack transportation, McCarthy says.

Students tutored through the program have improved in a broad range of measures of literacy skills, she says.

They improved their spelling by 1.2 grade levels, for example, and 88 percent of students moved from being frustrated in their fluency and comprehension to reading passages at the level at which they had been instructed.

The one-on-one tutoring is critical, McCarthy says.

“There’s a bond that develops as you come together and work hard over a long period of time toward a common goal,” she says.

Also key are the research-based method, and the ongoing support the tutors receive.

The Project’s program also has been replicated in 11 other communities, most of them in North Carolina, that have trained over 100 tutors who last year served students in over 100 schools and after-school programs.

And McCarthy and another tutor trained by the Augustine Literacy Project teach classes, respectively, at Durham Academy and Trinity School, both in Durham, where seniors learn to be tutors and then tutor students at Forest View Elementary School and Hope Valley Elementary School, both in Durham.

“Augustine tutors can help children struggling with reading, either because of poverty, or having English as a second language, or a learning disability,” McCarthy says. “We are trying to help as many children learn to read as possible.”

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One response

  1. The NC Bar Association this past year has initiated a lawyer-led effort in five counties called Lawyers4Literacy. It is very simple really – local bars are recruiting lawyers to spend time in their local schools helping students with their reading skills. For info contact Diane Wright dwright@ncbar.org

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