A Growing Problem in Schools : Functional Illiteracy: When the Printed Page Becomes a Fearful Enemy

Associated Press

Ninth-grader Jennie jiggled her leg nervously as reading specialist Marvin Cohn asked her to read a paragraph that any fourth-grader should have found easy.

She blazed through the passage, seemingly effortlessly, in just 22 seconds.

Minutes later, Cohn asked her to read it aloud. She read fluently--so flawlessly, in fact, that it would have been hard to guess that she barely understood what the words meant.

But when Cohn gently questioned her, it was clear that she hadn't comprehended what she hadd just read.

A Common Story

The story of Jennie--not her real name--is one of the most common in American schools today.

She defies easy categories. She has normal intelligence. Nothing is physically wrong with her brain--no dyslexia or other "learning disabilities." She knows the letters of the alphabet and how they sound. Her vocabulary is at least average.

But Jennie, like untold millions of others across the country, simply cannot comprehend what she reads. Her confidence withers when she faces the written word. She lacks the will or the attention span to study or do homework. She fails her courses.

Since Jennie lives in an affluent community where the average child's IQ is 120 and most go on to college, her reading problems make her feel isolated, depressed and inadequate. Her parents don't know whether to get tough or ease off.

Problem Students

Children like Jennie often become the problem students. They often drop out of school.

A generation ago, Rudolph Flesch shook up U.S. educators with his book, "Why Johnny Can't Read," in which he argued that America's reading problems could be solved if only schools taught more phonics--the method by which students decode words through the sounds of letters and combinations of letters.

But Cohn, who heads the reading clinic at Adelphi University, and other experts believe the nation has many more "Jennies" than "Johnnies" to worry about.

"The great majority of children will learn the mechanics of reading satisfactorily. But many will fail to become very expert at comprehending what they read, and many won't ever find reading a pleasurable activity," said Richard Anderson, director of the University of Illinois Center for the Study of Reading and chairman of the Commission on Reading, which last year published a landmark report, "Becoming a Nation of Readers."

"That is at least as important or more important than decoding problems," he said.

Functional Illiteracy

Fresh evidence of the nation's reading problems came this year in a new report issued by the Census Bureau, which estimated that 13% of American adults are illiterate in English. The rate climbs to 48% among adults whose native language is not English. Among English-speaking adults, 70% found to be illiterate had failed to finish high school.

At some point early in many Americans' lives, the printed page becomes an enemy. Just why this happens defies such easy answers as lack of phonics instruction or learning disabilities.

A combination of factors can be at fault, but most are tied to a child's environment, at home and at school: parents who let the TV drone on for hours, parents who push too hard or teachers who lack the expertise to help children before budding reading problems destroy their confidence.

Disturbing Problem

Veteran reading clinicians like Paula Pattschull of the University of Denver say that only a tiny portion of clients, perhaps 2%, has serious trouble decoding or sounding out words.

Some experts argue that cases like that of 15-year-old Jennie suggest some disturbing things as the nation grapples with its reading problems.

First, the perennial, often virulent, debate among scholars and policy makers over the merits of using phonics to teach reading is distracting the public from more subtle, more difficult and far more widespread reading problems.

"It presents the false hope that if we just taught phonics right, everything would fall into place," Anderson said.

'Learning Disabled'

Second, educators, psychologists and others may have grown hasty in classifying children like Jennie "learning disabled."

Kenneth A. Martyn, a former dean of California State University system and now president of a multistate chain of profit-making reading centers called "The Reading Game," put it more bluntly: "That is the most intense cop-out we have in education today."

The number of youngsters classified as learning disabled has grown rapidly. In 1976-77, there were 797,213 such children, about 1.79% of all youngsters enrolled in school. The number more than doubled to 1,811,489, or 4.57% of total enrollment, in 1983-84, the latest federal statistics available.

All this can lead parents astray as they try to help solve their youngsters' reading problems.

Parents Lose Patience

Reading clinicians like Cohn say they have noticed that parents increasingly demand a definite diagnosis such as dyslexia and tend to be less patient with fuzzier explanations that defy quick solutions or suggest that problems at home might be to blame.

"It's more comfortable sometimes for a parent to say, well, it's not my fault, it's not the school's fault. It's something wrong with my kid's brain," Pattschull said.

In Jennie's case, Cohn suspected that she was caught in a vicious circle. Her reading difficulties made her feel inadequate; those feelings, in turn, were crippling her ability to confront a written page confidently.

Believing that more individual attention might help, Jennie's parents took her out of public school and enrolled her in a parochial school. But things got worse.

No Place to Hide

While Jennie could mask her problems in large public school classes, she found herself in a humiliating fishbowl in parochial classes with as few as five youngsters and no place to hide.

By the time her parents took her to see Cohn, Jennie was failing three courses and was in danger of being expelled.

Reading clinics use various strategies to help youngsters like Jennie.

The central idea, said Cohn and others, is not to confuse the symptoms--the feelings of inferiority and inadequacy--for the disease, which is poor reading skill.

Simple Strategy

The strategy is to improve reading skill first. Each little success, every bit of progress, should in turn be used to gradually build the child's self-confidence.

But in the schools, say reading researchers like Scott Paris of the University of Michigan, teachers often lack the materials and the understanding to teach good reading strategies.

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