Literacy is one of the most important abilities we can pass on to children. This is not just vital from a technical life skills perspective, either. Reading, writing, and communications skills open us all up to a diverse and rich world. They help us to connect more deeply with one another and better understand the challenges that others face, which in turn helps to build empathy. Literacy is a tool to assist us in our day-to-day lives, pull ourselves out of socio-economic hardships, and contribute to the positive development of our communities.
Which makes it even more frustrating that many children still face roadblocks to literacy. A recent study found that 54% of U.S. adults aged 16-74 read below the sixth-grade level. This suggests that there are serious systemic problems that are preventing students from effectively grasping reading and writing in a way that empowers them to use those skills to enhance their adult lives. These issues come from a variety of sources — individual learning difficulties, disabilities, and living as part of marginalized communities can all negatively affect how children adopt literacy skills.
We’re going to take some time to examine a few of these primary barriers to literacy for children. Where should we be placing focus to best help children to help themselves? What tools can make a serious impact as part of ongoing learning efforts?
Some of the most immediate roadblocks to literacy most of us would consider are physical and mental accessibility challenges. While there are some legal frameworks for reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), these don’t always help to overcome all the barriers to literacy.
Therefore, parents and teachers should seek to apply:
The ADA doesn’t cover those students who may not be aware of disabilities or are as yet undiagnosed. Many make it to adulthood without understanding why they have difficulties. Teachers and parents must become familiar with the early signs of potential issues, and look out for them.
Children who have vision problems may be squinting at books or screen text during remote classes, they may also rub their eyes or have frequent headaches. Noting these early enough can ensure they gain access to assistive measures as simple as a pair of glasses, that opens them up to better literacy. When it comes to challenges such as dyslexia, the symptoms can vary depending on their age — children aged 5 to 12 may have poor phonological awareness and describe visual distortions, while teenagers may have poorly organized written work or struggle to express ideas in writing. Understand what issues present at different stages of kids’ development, and intervene where possible.
- Inclusive Environments
No single environment for learning is going to be appropriate for all children. Ensure that the classroom is equipped with tools that account for children of all abilities. This should include braille options or large print for children with visual challenges. Remember that children learn to read at different rates; provide books and materials that make reading and writing enjoyable for children of all levels, as well as encouraging them to move up to the next step.
Isolation can be problematic for children with mobility challenges, or those learning from home. Create group reading areas and situations that ensure these children are drawn into the group, rather than left on the outskirts. This can be in physical spaces by making sure that wheelchairs have easy access, or in remote circumstances where all children are enabled to read aloud and contribute to discussions.
Discussions surrounding literacy roadblocks often revolve around the more physical and visible issues. Yet, one of the primary challenges comes from a socioeconomic standpoint. There is often poor literacy among marginalized communities, and there is considered to be a cyclical effect in that poor literacy keeps communities marginalized. Therefore teachers and parents alike need to understand how this presents barriers to learning and work together to respond.
This response should include:
- Funding and Resources
This is a huge issue and one that unfortunately too many teachers have tried to solve with their own salaries yet little government support. However, kids who live in poverty may not have families who can invest in books and magazines as readily as their other peers. Research groups that provide books to kids (like CLiF), and library programs that introduce students to the vast resources available in their communities.
Remember also that the assignment of e-books for remote learners is not always practical for students. A recent study found that 26% of low-income households are smartphone-dependent for digital services; small screens can be detrimental to reading. It may also be the case that there will only be one smartphone for the family. If e-books are a part of the curriculum, seek out assistance from organizations such as Computers with Causes who provide donated or refurbished tablets and laptops to those in need.
It’s important not just to ensure that reading materials are enjoyable, but also representative of their readers’ experiences. It is well-publicized that protagonists in books largely reflect white male perspectives, which can result in fewer opportunities for kids to fully engage with characters in meaningful ways. When readers don’t see their own cultures reflected in fiction, the incentive to keep reading for enjoyment and fulfillment can fall away. Make certain that reading materials and writing activities reflect diversity across races, cultures, and communities.
This doesn’t just extend to characters, either. The stories that resonate with students’ circumstances can encourage them to write and talk more openly about them. Positive depictions of their scenarios help to dispel the unhelpful tales of marginalized people that often dominate popular culture. Access to materials that give them pride in their background and can push them to seek out similar literary experiences.
Children don’t all learn in the same way, or at the same rate. As a result, education systems that have a rigid approach to their curricula can shut out those children who either have difficulties with learning or are just not suited to more traditional “lecturing” methods. Therefore, it’s important to adopt methods that children can engage with.
Depending on the children involved, it can be useful to explore whether there is an approach to learning that is more relevant to kids’ needs. Cognitive learning theory shows students how their thought processes impact their learning and their behavior. This can be applied to literacy by helping children understand what their barriers to reading and writing are, and developing methods to stay mindful of them and overcome them. The constructivism learning theory presents the idea that children create their own learning based on their past experiences. In literacy this can be used by encouraging students to follow their own curiosity rather than be dictated on the subjects of reading and writing, to create a more relevant educational engagement.
In most cases, entire curriculums can’t be practically overhauled. Therefore parents should work with teachers to discover how the most appropriate elements can be incorporated into their classroom learning, and what can be undertaken at home through games and activities.
Literacy is one of our most important skills. We have to consider the entire breadth of physical, sociological, and pedagogical roadblocks that can prove challenging for children in this area. We can then work to adjust our educational approach, and provide students with the best tools to enter the world as literate, productive young adults.
Bio: Jori Hamilton is an experienced writer residing in the Northwestern U.S. She covers a wide range of subjects but takes a particular interest in covering topics related to child education and parenting. To learn more about Jori, you can follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn.
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