Facing the Literacy Barrier

A few years ago, a 5th grader sat in my Kids Church classroom with his head on the table. He was exceedingly frustrated with the activity that I had assigned – reading a small portion of scripture and writing a reflection in their personal journals. This act of frustration wasn’t out of the ordinary – I had noticed that often times during class, an activity would cause him to suddenly withdraw and become less engaged. On the other hand, he loved answering questions and the days that he got to draw in his journal. I couldn’t put my finger on what was causing these behavioral issues from an otherwise engaged student. 

The light bulb went off when one of my volunteers, a middle school teacher, pulled me aside and told me that it was clear he struggled with reading proficiency. 

That’s when I realized how many of our activities were based on the general assumption that the kids could read. I can imagine that this child, when faced with those challenges, was feeling frustrated, disempowered, and maybe embarrassed, which often led to disciplinary issues. 

This story raises important questions for the next generation: By 5th grade, how does a child still lack basic reading skills? How many children’s behavioral issues might resolve if they didn’t struggle with literacy every day in school? How can we help our children overcome literacy challenges?

Atlanta Dream Center

The challenges of literacy are far reaching and complex. That said, I am a firm believer that it truly takes a community to raise a child. Community members have an incredible opportunity to work together to face the challenges of literacy as well as help lay a solid foundation for the next generation. 

3rd Grade – the Major Milestone:

A major milestone in a child’s literacy occurs in third grade – when they transition from learning to read to reading to learn. Data has shown that children who are not proficient readers by third grade are four times more likely to drop out of school than those who are proficient. When those students who are struggling reach fourth grade, up to half of the printed curriculum will be incomprehensible without those essential reading skills (Annie E. Casey Foundation).  Imagine going to work and not understanding half of your emails, meetings, or tasks! 

The Bad News:

According to Learn4Life’s 2019 annual report on the Atlanta area, only 39% of third graders have met reading proficiency standards. If we look even deeper into the findings, we see that a mere 25% of economically disadvantaged children are proficient in reading. This highlights the fact that poverty creates significant barriers to literacy. 

“Poverty affects child development, parent-child interactions, and family functioning. When families are isolated, lack resources, live with greater stress and instability, or view their child’s temperament as difficult, there is higher risk of negative child health and behavioral outcomes. These risk factors also affect children’s language, cognitive, and social-emotional development.” (getgeorgiareading.org)

Alongside poverty, there are 11 other factors that have been identified by Get Georgia Reading as affecting children’s ability to read – many of which are still connected to poverty. Therefore, the question lies in how we might rectify the discrepancy in literacy availability.  

The Good News:

Which brings us to the good news – although the scope of the issue is sobering, there are many organizations across Georgia that are working together to take on this challenge. To name a few, the Get Georgia Reading Campaign, Learn4Life, Cox Campus Empowered Readers, and the Pajama Program. This is only the tip of the iceberg! Educators, legislators, organizations, parents, and community members can and have been working together to eliminate the issue of illiteracy.

All of these organizations have inspired us, at Atlanta Dream Center, and given us incredible tools to assist with children’s literacy in our prevention programs. Our hope is to see students like the young man in my class feel empowered to imagine, explore, take on new challenges, and most importantly, have access to God’s life giving word, through their superpower – reading!

Atlanta Dream Center

What Can I Do About it?

  • Educate! Learn more about how you can encourage literacy with the children in your life. Cox Campus offers free online children’s literacy training tools for community members here.
  • Donate! Bring gently used books to local “little free libraries” to increase community access to books, or look for organizations in your area that may need book donations. Empowered Readers is planting little free libraries in “library deserts” across Metro Atlanta – you can check out more on their Out of the Margins initiative here.

Above all, choose to engage with the children in your life – whether family, church, or community. Talk to them, listen to them, and of course, as much as you are able, read with them.