This I Believe

Marion - Tenafly, New Jersey
Entered on September 18, 2006
Age Group: 65+

Reading: Bestowing A Birthright

“I believe that reading is the single most important skill an individual can learn.”

In elementary school, a story in the history books that “hit home” for me concerned the extraordinary and often brutal efforts slave owners expended in keeping their slaves illiterate. It was not difficult for me to understand their dreadful motivation. From the time I was in kindergarten, I had witnessed the devastating consequences of not being able to read. Many in my family had immigrated from poverty-ridden villages in Eastern Europe where there was no opportunity to go to school. Their illiteracy was a recurrent source of shame and helplessness. Among my early memories is one where my aunt writes an X on an official piece of paper and then, with downcast eyes, steps aside so that my father can authenticate what she has done by putting a “real signature” underneath.

These experiences instilled in me the abiding belief that reading is the single most important skill a person can learn. That belief has been my passion and I have had the good fortune to be able to pursue it through the four decades of my career. When I started out, I assumed that literacy in our society was a given. So rather than focusing on ways to teach the skill, I chose to research fascinating issues such as the ways literacy affects the mind.

Over time, I came to realize my assumption had been wrong. Literacy was far from a fait accompli. Unbelievable as it seems, government reports consistently show that approximately 40% of normal, healthy children are failing to learn to read.

Failure rates of this magnitude are not signs of problems in the children. They are signs of problems in the teaching. It is vital that the instructional system be changed—and changed dramatically. At the same time, we know that established institutions such as schools do not readily adapt to change. The change can only happen through pressure outside the system from informed citizens.

In the realm of literacy, we do have a group who can make this happen. That group is composed of the millions of parents whose children are failing. They are unbelievably committed to their children and desperate to offer them success. But they have not had the information they need. Once they do, they can become an enormously powerful force in bringing about change.

So my focus has shifted. I now believe that my efforts must be devoted to creating user-friendly, effective programs that will enable parents to offer academic and life success to their children. It may seem wildly ambitious to take on this broad a task. But as Margaret Mead so eloquently stated: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, concerned citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”