Summary: Law enforcement officials should take a special interest in literacy. Why? Because one thing the majority of criminals have in common is they canít read. Letís make the public schools do a better job.
There is a very simple way that police chiefs can help their communities AND save the lives of some of their police officers.
Simply support every method or group in your area that is successfully promoting literacy. That word has a very precise meaning: kids learn to read EARLY, and they learn to read WELL. All the good programs say unequivocally that children will learn to read in the first year or two of school. (Is that the norm in your area?)
Conversely, do everything you can to oppose reading methods that donít work (including such popular failures as Sight Words, Whole Word, and Dolch Words). These flawed methods are the very reason this country has 50,000,000 functional illiterates. The victims of these methods often become the low level criminals that police departments deal with in the streets every day.
In our complex society, if a young man canít read, what are his options, realistically speaking? Breaking into your house or car are some of the first ones that would occur to most people in the same situation.
The link between illiteracy and crime is well known. Search the words on the Internet and you will find pages of grim statistics, such as:
85 of juveniles who enter the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate.
More than 60 of prison inmates are functionally illiterate.
Over 70 of inmates in America s prisons read at a fourth grade level or below.
The link is decisive, and it shows up early. You see the same stat all the time: more than a third of fourth graders cannot read at grade level. Those young people are on the road to illiteracy. They are also on the way to the cells in the local jail.
Anyone concerned about the community, local police officers, and the future of this country, needs to take an interest in the Reading Wars. Please donít say itís too complicated or you canít understand it. You donít have to be a mechanic to know your carís running well. You donít need to know how the human body works to know when you see somebody who is healthy or sick. Usually you know. Police officers, especially, are skilled at making fast, accurate appraisals.
In the matter of reading, itís especially easy to know. Simply hand a newspaper to a 10 year old and say, ďPlease read this.Ē If they read the words on the page just as they are, even if slowly, that child can read. But if the child hesitates, omits words, substitutes words, makes wild guesses, and/or reads words backward, that child cannot read. Such children are typically miserable, ashamed, anxious and will drop out of school as soon as they can. They will often wind up in trouble with the law.
What to do? First of all, be assured that much can be done!
Start by finding the organizations and people who are doing a good job teachers, private schools, homeschooling parents. Talk to them. Get a sense of what they think is best practice and reasonable goals.
The next step is to put these people in touch with those who might need a little help, whether schools or individual children. The police are in a wonderful position to help set up mentoring relationships. Hand out fliers. Have a community event. Celebrate groups which increase literacy. In the process, all police officers will learn more about literacy themselves; some may want to become tutors.
None of this is a waste of the taxpayerís money. Help kids to read today so you donít have to arrest them tomorrow itís that basic.
Frankly, there is a lot of misinformation about reading. Many people are confused. Make a decision right now you are not going to be one of those people. Here is all you need to know in 200 words:
The basic gimmick used in all the bad programs (for the past 70 years) is that they require children to memorize words as DIAGRAMS, much the way we all memorize electrical symbols, flags, military insignia, classic cars, etc. This is hard work. You study the details and memorize them, or you try to. Memorizing a few hundred designs is doable (but even here, instant recall will often prove elusive). Memorizing a few thousand designs is virtually impossible except for people with photographic memories. But English has a huge vocabulary, and to be literate, you need at least 25,000 words, probably 50,000 words. Memorizing so many sight words is hopeless. Furthermore, kids with the least verbal skills are the ones most destroyed by this method. (A functional illiterate is basically a person who tops out around 500 or 1000 sight words.)
As for the correct method, children learn the alphabet, the sounds, and the blends. In a few months they sound out words, slowly at first and then automatically, the way most adults do it. The short name for all this is phonics. And all phonics programs say they will teach children to read in their first year or two of school. If any of your local schools are not getting that result, you know you have a problem, and you can help fix it.
Please take the next step, which is to chat with some people at the best schools in your city. Ask for their advice and involvement. Meanwhile, try the ďnewspaper testĒ on some kids you encounter. Find out what kind of readers your schools are producing. Maybe you can save some of these kids before itís too late.
What this country needs is for more Police Chiefs (along with generals, business execs, and politicians) to jump into the Reading Wars. Beat the drums at conferences and conventions. Hail the good schools. Put a harsh spotlight on your worst performing schools. Reading is the one essential skill. As reading goes, so goes the prospects and future of each student. And the countryís future as well.
For additional analysis of this problem, see ď42: Reading ResourcesĒ on Improve Education.org.
Bruce Deitrick Price is the founder of http://www.Improve-Education.org, an education and intellectual site. One focus is reading; see "42: Reading Resources." Price is an author, artist and poet. His fifth book is "THE EDUCATION ENIGMA--What Happened to American Education."