Excellent Instruction in Early Childhood

Adult literacy levels have improved in recent years, but illiteracy and low literacy persist as pressing, national problems. In an information-rich society, the capacity to read, write and problem-solve is essential. Yet 21 percent to 23 percent of the U.S. adult population lacks adequate literacy levels to “find and keep decent jobs… and participate actively in civic life” (National Institute for Literacy).

In the International Adult Literacy Survey, conducted by Statistics Canada, the United States ranked second (behind Poland) among 12 countries in the proportion of adults scoring at the lowest levels of literacy.

It is now widely known from brain development research that early literacy and reading begin at the start of life. Quality early childhood education and bilingual education programs are, therefore, essential to lifetime learning and success. It is often said that children’s first years are spent learning to read, then in school, “reading to learn.” Yet few children have access to quality early childhood education.

These realities come at a tremendous cost to individuals, families and communities. Forty-three percent of adults with low literacy live in poverty (National Institute for Literacy). Seven out of 10 U.S. prison inmates perform at the two lowest levels of literacy (NCES, 1994).

The National Adult Literacy Survey estimates that adult illiteracy in this country costs $17 billion in foregone income, tax revenue, welfare, unemployment, crime incarceration and costs to business and industry (See: SIL International at http://www.sil.org/literacy/issues.htm). Our nation’s literacy is bound up not only in our quality of life, employability, and productivity, but in each person’s capacity to participate fully in the civic life of our communities.

With a recognition of the critical role that adult literacy plays in quality of life and the role of intergenerational literacy in children’s learning, IDRA has held a long-standing commitment to documenting literacy needs and trends, promoting best practices, and providing technical assistance on literacy policy. Since its inception, IDRA has promoted literacy initiatives that value the diverse cultural and linguistic heritage of adult learners and the unique knowledge and resources every learner brings to language learning and literacy. As a touchstone of this work, IDRA affirms that adults learning English as a second language must be provided learning opportunities that:

  • Value their culture and language
  • Continue their academic development (in this country) in environments that value their previous schooling
  • Capitalize on their knowledge and proficiency in their first language to learn English
  • Become literate in their first language to facilitate the transition to English literacy
  • Include information and training on how to advocate a quality education for their children

A Snapshot of What IDRA is Doing

Conducting Research – Building on decades of research on adult literacy, this year IDRA re-examined literacy levels in San Antonio and the nation. This work, described on Page 1, assesses literacy trends in light of proposals to reduce federal funding for literacy programs.

IDRA’s READ project, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, is establishing in preschool centers “classrooms of excellence” that collectively form a “center of excellence” that ensures reading, cognitive and emotional success for all preschool children through a print rich environment with appropriate accommodations for children with disabilities. IDRA is using a research-based classroom-based professional development initiative involving HeadStart and public school teachers to form a seamlessly-integrated instructional program.

Developing Leaders – In 2000 and 2001, IDRA studied exemplary bilingual education programs in schools across the nation as determined by limited-English-proficient students’ academic achievement. Through this work, IDRA identified the 25 common characteristics that contribute to high academic performance of students served by bilingual education programs. IDRA is helping education leaders identify successful programs or raise the bar with their own bilingual education programs.

Informing Policy – IDRA’s research, analysis, public education and testimony help to inform public debates on literacy by “connecting the dots” between school finance policy, bilingual education and literacy. As examples, this past year, IDRA has analyzed how proposed changes in funding weights might affect students with limited English proficiency. In collaboration with the Texas Coalition for Bilingual Education, IDRA published a “Unified Position Statement on Bilingual/ESL Education” (See IDRA Newsletter, February 2005) to inform education policy.

Engaging Communities – IDRA engages community members in literacy and reading in multiple ways. Public forums, such as the recent InterAction Policy Forums (http://www.idra.org/education_policy/interaction/), offer opportunities for community input into the development of state policies that close educational gaps and enhance the quality of instruction for English language learners. Through six centers in San Antonio’s Edgewood school district, IDRA’s TECNO project provides direct access for parents and students to computer literacy and online resources. Through its parent information resource center (PIRC), IDRA provides Texas school districts with the training and technical assistance to facilitate parents being partners in their children’s reading and literacy development.

What You Can Do

Get informed about literacy programs and research and resources on bilingual education. Good places to start are:

Get involved by weighing in on federal, state and local initiatives to promote literacy, equity, and quality educational programming. According to the National Institute for Literacy, “Nationally, fewer than 10 percent of adults who could benefit from literacy programs are currently being served.” For this reason alone, public input on local, federal, and state literacy policies, spending and programming is critically needed to encourage policy and practice that address this gap. Online resources that support public involvement in literacy advocacy are:

Get results by volunteering as a reading or literacy teacher or tutor, administrator or board member for a literacy initiative in your home town. You can become an advocate of quality instructional programs by collaborating with local community-based organizations to ensure that your community and schools provide opportunities for adults to enhance English language proficiency and parent partnerships with schools.

As a parent, you can enhance your own children’s love of reading and learning by making book sharing, storytelling and problem-solving a part of everyday life. “Parents As First Teachers – Creating An Enriched Home Language Environment” and “Building Blocks of Reading and Writing” include more information on how parents can support literacy development through regular, easy, fun home activities.

You can find local literacy programs and volunteer opportunities in your area by searching the NIFL and Partner’s online directory at: http://www.literacydirectory.org/ or calling 1-800-228-8813. Literacy USA’s database at http://www.literacyusa.org/members.htm can put you in touch with a host of other volunteer opportunities in your community. For information for parents, grandparents and other caretakers on the importance of book sharing in children’s literacy development, see A Child Becomes A Reader at http://www.cdl.org/resource-library/pdf/NICHD_redr_brth_prK.pdf.

Additional Research and Resources

Comments and questions may be directed to IDRA via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2005, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Every effort has been made to maintain the content in its original form. However, accompanying charts and graphs may not be provided here. To receive a copy of the original article by mail or fax, please fill out our information request and feedback form. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]