Opinion Columns & Blogs

Children who do not learn to read, write by 3rd grade face tough future

Dana Hensley

Students in Holly Morgan's kindergarten class at Peterson Elementary read together out of their textbook called Journeys in December 2017. Morgan been piloting a new reading program for the district.
Students in Holly Morgan's kindergarten class at Peterson Elementary read together out of their textbook called Journeys in December 2017. Morgan been piloting a new reading program for the district. The Wichita Eagle

Recent opinion pieces about methamphetamine use in our city and state and its relationship to crime are sobering and important. While the causes of drug abuse are complex and multifaceted, one direct correlation cannot be overlooked.

Children who do not learn to read and write by the end of third grade are likely doomed to school and life failure that can often lead to drug use and criminal behavior. The 2017 national reading scores continued to reveal that 63 percent of Kansas’ fourth-graders are not taught learning how to read — whether it is in urban, suburban, private, parochial or charter schools. Fourth-grade reading instruction builds on the idea that children are no longer learning to read, but rather are reading to learn. Non- or under-performing readers walk away from this early experience with a self-perception of being stupid and ashamed of their minds. This is the road to school and life failure and a direct path to destructive decisions.

According to the International Dyslexia Association, as much as 15 to 20 percent of the population has dyslexia, and research has proven that children with dyslexia cannot learn with the mainstream curricula that is used in most schools today. Reading is a code-processing skill. It is the process of assembling and projecting streams of thought or spoken words according to the instructions and information contained in a code. Dyslexia is frequently misunderstood. It is hereditary and has nothing to do with visual perception such as letter reversals. It is a language processing disability which occurs at the sound unit level within language.

It is easy to visualize the impact of illiteracy on individuals and their families. Imagine a child growing up, dyslexic or not, and unable to read a medicine label or a nutritional label. Imagine not being able to read a bank statement, fill out a job application or compare the cost of two items to work out which one offers the best value. Imagine not being able to understand government policies and vote in an election, use a computer to look up and access news and information. Imagine not being able to read to your child or help with homework.

The economic impact on society is equally disastrous. Consider that 75 percent of unemployed adults have reading or writing difficulties. The cost to businesses in lost productivity and profitability due to poor literacy includes the cost of fixing incorrect orders or processing refunds, customers lost due to poor communication and the cost and difficulty of finding adequately skilled staff. Employees with poor literacy are more likely to have work-related accidents because they cannot read or understand written health and safety regulations and warnings or instructions. Illiteracy significantly limits an employee’s ability to access, understand and apply health-related preventative information which results in poor household and personal health. This leads to a high rate of disease, accidents and other health issues which in turn raises demand for medical services and causes job absenteeism and even, if unchecked, permanent disability or death. Seventy percent of the inmates in America’s prisons cannot read above the 4th grade level. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, “the link between academic failure and delinquency, violence and crime is welded to reading failure.”

The good news is that children with dyslexia or other reading difficulties can be taught to read, write and spell. The solutions are not quick, cheap or easy. But as a taxpayer, I would rather pay upfront and help these children now rather than pay for drug rehab and more prison beds after lives are damaged, some beyond repair. Better direct service through early identification and support is needed for students. Teachers, through pre-service and in-service training, must be given the information and tools to teach reading to ALL students. It is also going to take the awareness, interest and generosity of the private sector to change the low-literacy trajectory Kansas students are on.

Dana Hensley is a member of the board of directors of the Fundamental Learning Center