What happens to those people who leave high school without having learned traditional literacy skills? Although my focus in education is K-12, I can’t help but ask myself this question. Having had extensive experience working in the service industry, I have known several adult versions of those students who fall through the cracks. That isn’t to say that they cannot be successful as adults – a lack of literacy skills does not equal a lack of any valuable skills. But struggling with reading and writing can certainly be a source of anxiety, embarrassment, and problems both in one’s personal and professional life.
According to the Literacy Foundation, some key implications of inadequate literacy skills are having a limited ability to obtain important information, employment problems (such as lower paying jobs and a higher unemployment rate), and, most relevant to educators, less access to continued learning and not seeing education and reading as important. All of these things will also affect their children – our students. Employment problems can lead to instability at home and other issues that come from reduced economic status. A limited ability to obtain information makes it more difficult for a parent to help with homework or even understand important materials we may send home with our students, such as letters about upcoming events or problems the school is dealing with. And, to compound these problems even further, a parent who doesn’t value education is less likely to make their child’s education a priority while influencing their child to also not value literacy and education.
Although I’m sure that some adults who struggle with reading and writing may have been students who lacked motivation and just “didn’t think reading was important” for life beyond school, I suspect that this is not the case for most who continue to have significant problems beyond things like spelling and grammar. Most of these adults – all of the ones with whom I have had opportunities to have conversations about literacy, in fact – struggled with some sort of learning disability while in school which they received services for. This leaves me wondering – were the interventions simply not enough? What could have been done differently? Or is there just a need for additional services and educational programs for adults who still struggle with literacy and don’t know how to improve those skills independently?
I don’t think there are any easy answers to any of these questions, and I don’t think it is the responsibility of K-12 educators to intervene on behalf of these individuals. What I do think is that we could well have the skills and knowledge to help support the ones that we come into contact with – friends, neighbors, and especially parents of students. We could use our knowledge to guide them to helpful resources or provide an understanding of strategies that could help. We could provide reassurance when they feel like giving up. When it comes to a parent who struggles with literacy, we can help not only the adult but also our student because increased literacy will allow them to better support their child’s learning outside of school. The first step is simply to make ourselves open enough and approachable enough to become a resource for our extended communities.