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  • Writer's pictureNewsmakers with JR

Reading: A Rite of Passage -- and a Human Right

(Editor's note: Board members for the Santa Barbara Unified School District will meet Thursday night at 5:30 to begin interviewing more than a dozen applicants for appointment to a fifth, open seat (Zoom link here). It seems an appropriate time for the latest installment of our occasional series on reading and literacy).

By Cheri Rae

Over the holidays, the best gift I received was the excited voice of my six-year-old granddaughter from the back seat of my car. Letters in a shop window caught her eye, as we stopped at a red light, she gazed out the car window from her booster seat.

“L-I-T” she said, then “T-L-E.” She repeated the syllables a couple of times, then put them together. “Grandma, that spells LITTLE!” she exclaimed. As we drove back home, she put together the sounds from a red sign she saw. It was the first time she realized the letters spelled out the symbol of the sign. “ST” and then “OP.," she said. “STOP. The stop sign says STOP!”

Then, as we pulled up at the house, she sounded out the “LI- FE” on the Literacy Is For Everyone decal on my Little Free Library. “LIFE!” she crowed.

It was a moment to remember in her young life as all those letters and lessons, the sounds and symbols began to make sense to her. She discovered the joy of reading. And she knew it. “Grandma, I am reading! Now I have to practice so I get really good.”

In educational terms she was engaged in decoding, phonemic awareness, and orthographic mapping, committing the lessons to memory through repetition.

In personal terms she is now free, possessing a gift that can never be taken away.

It’s her first rite of passage: In learning to read she soon will be able to read to learn. And maybe her dream of becoming an astronaut really can come true.

Settled science of reading. When reading happens like this — on-time and what looks like an almost effortless, magical visit from the reading fairy — it seems like a natural process, one that brain is programmed to perform.

But, as researchers and scientists repeatedly document and reliably report, the human brain is wired to speak, but not to read; reading must be taught. And the best way to teach to decode the written word is explicit, systematic, cumulative and multi-sensory.

My granddaughter is one of the lucky ones. She receives classroom instruction in the settled science of reading. She’s learning about consonants and vowels; the structure and patterns of written language; the rules and exceptions that apply and how to use these skills to crack the code and build her knowledge.

Call it old-fashioned or time-honored, it is the instructional approach to reading that has gone in and out of style for decades.

It’s been around long before the theory of “balanced literacy” was packaged and promoted, taking a firm hold in the minds of administrators who control purchasing decisions in school districts throughout our county and across our country.

Balanced literacy is characterized by its three-cueing notion of reading, which depends on interpreting “contextual clues,” like referring to pictures, guesswork based on what looks right or sounds right, or the expectation that children will develop a love for reading and writing when they’re immersed in it. Although it’s been exposed as a deeply flawed approach — borne out by the incidence of poor readers and low literacy rates — balanced literacy remains a mainstay in classrooms throughout our community and far beyond.

Sold a story. Students schooled in this practice take a circuitous route to reading, one that never really leads to mastery.

In her well-researched podcast, “Sold a Story,” investigative reporter Emily Hanford reveals the folly of following balanced literacy, the waste of time and resources and the damage done to children. It’s a must-listen to understanding what caused our reading crisis — and why it continues despite so much evidence to the contrary.

It comes as no surprise that the billion-dollar business of education is loath to change and persists in pushing a scientifically debunked idea of reading instruction, even when the future generation is at stake.

Once students age out of the primary grades, our sink-or-swim educational approach presumes no need for continued reading instruction beyond grade three. Readers who struggle to stay afloat focus their attention on the arduous task of completing reading assignments, unable to allow their minds to make innovative connections or leaps of imagination. Their full potential is too often stifled because their low literacy skills prevent them from accessing higher level texts.

I’m reminded of my ongoing conversations with a local high school principal who finally recognized that the difficulties faced by about half the students on campus were rooted, not in laziness or bad attitudes, but in poor reading instruction years before. No longer on the job, that enlightened leadership would have made a massive difference in remediating the skills those older students were never taught.

Christmas came early. A Christmas Day article in the New York Times revealed an innovative approach successfully implemented in Memphis, Tennessee to infuse every class — including math and history lessons— with literacy instruction based in phonics, along with vocabulary building and understanding roots, prefixes and suffixes. It’s an important reminder that focus only on primary reading instruction isn’t enough; literacy proficiency is so essential that skills need development and reinforcement throughout K-12.

If you’re able to read this, count yourself lucky, too.

Imagine how different your own life would be if you were never taught to read proficiently. You might be surprised to know this is the all-too-real situation of far too many of our friends, neighbors and colleagues. It’s very personal — and common throughout our community.

How would you deal with applying to college — not to mention attempting college-level work? What about ordering from menus, completing job applications, comprehending on-the-job reports; interpreting voter information brochures and casting ballots; deciphering medical pamphlets and understanding prescription instructions; following a recipe.

No matter how clever the workarounds, coping with low literacy is fraught with fear and loaded with anxiety over keeping the secret of reading struggles, and the accompanying sense of shame and humiliation of it, being revealed. It makes life more difficult than it should be.

Reading, smoking and driving drunk. Paradigm shifts do happen, and one is needed regarding literacy. It once was acceptable for people to smoke in restaurants, or drive after a few drinks. Now those actions are unthinkable. One of these days, the very notion of shrugging off the fact that only half of students are taught to read in our school reading proficiency rates will be equally appalling and unacceptable.

My intention is to speed up that process, to reach the tipping point about literacy where the odds of achieving it are far better than a coin toss.

Every child has the right to read as joyfully as my granddaughter — and none of them deserve to grow into adulthood hiding in the shadow of low literacy.

Recognizing the importance of improving literacy levels, concerned individuals in San Diego and in Oakland have taken the discussion of literacy out of the classroom and into the community.

They meet regularly, sharing their perspectives and expertise to raise awareness, encourage dialogue and develop solutions to enhance literacy levels. They aim to give every child equal opportunity to read anything they choose on their way to achieving their dreams.

Why not in Santa Barbara? This creative and caring community is surely a place where thoughtful community members can meet to talk, and work together to develop support and workable solutions to improve reading proficiency in our midst. Do you believe that Literacy Is For Everyone? Ready to join in the conversation? Feel free to get in touch at

Resources: Here is a partial list of some cities' programs to improve reading.

Birmingham, AL

Page Pals(Begin at 9:20)

Des Moines, IA city council funding approved for literacy.

Sacramento: Promise Zone Literacy Initiative, in partnership with Housing Dept.

Bristol England, Reading City.

Cheri Rae is a longtime literacy and dyslexia advocate. She is the Director of The Dyslexia Project and the author of several books, including DyslexiaLand: A Field Guide for Parents of Children with Dyslexia. She has compiled a list of cities that have created literacy initiatives and expects that Santa Barbara will soon be one of them.

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