Happy Birthday To Me: Parents Are Not To Blame For Nation’s Literacy Crisis

A wise woman once told me in my twenties “we all have a little girl inside us hurting and hopeful. And we have to honor her, too.”

I think about Little Vesia all the time, as it is she who guides my advocacy and passion for the ignored, and commitment to the unheard. Like the woman, the little girl is eager to serve without condition and aggrieved by injustice.

If you’ve read even one of my blogs, you might know that I find literacy rates in our public schools an injustice of epic proportions. My reality: roughly 33 percent of Tennessee students read on grade level. In my hometown of Nashville, more than 80 percent of Black and Brown students in grades 3 through 8 read below grade level.

I began blogging about literacy rates exactly one year ago and while Nashville has moved the needle a bit in growth since then, we still have miles, maybe a lifetime, ahead of us.

Yesterday I listened to Voices4Ed podcast hosted by my friends Lane Wright and Ikhlas Saleem on the topic of reading. On this episode, very special guest Emily Hanford, American Public Media reporter and podcast host, discusses the old battle between phonics and whole language and the more recent Balanced Literacy efforts to teach kids how to read. Hanford is what we Gen X’ers would call Hooked on Phonics. She believes, and scientists back her up on this, kids learn to read through “explicit and systematic phonics instruction,” by learning the mechanics of sounding out words, identifying blends and combinations and well, you get the picture.

Midway through the podcast, I was thrilled to hear Ikhlas ask about the roles parents and income level play in kids learning to read. After spending time with test scores last October, I went on a fact-finding mission to find out why our babies aren’t learning to read. Instead of references to respected researchers, solid studies or examples of best reading instruction practices happening in our schools, I got a lot of finger pointing. The blame game on steroids! Parents blame schools for not being truthful about their student’s performance and virtually everybody blames parents for kids’ failure to read. Hanford informs us that while parents and exposure play a role, the right reading instruction is the real MVP. After a year of literacy diving and coming up empty-handed, this podcast, on the eve of my forty-seventh birthday, gave me life.

And with that, the little girl in me and the woman will celebrate today with some semblance of hope that our children can be “explicitly and systematically” taught to read — in school.

Check out Voices4Ed podcast with Emily Hanford and listen to the audio documentary Hard Words, by Emily Hanford.

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