Let’s talk literacy

“What is literacy?”

It’s a question I posed to several of my classes over the past few weeks, and in most cases, it was met with silence. One of these classes in particular is known for almost never being silent, so I knew I had them stumped. It’s fun to stump the class sometimes because it means there’s an opportunity for some real learning!

“Does it have to do with littering?,” one brave student ventured a guess.

“Not quite, but I like how you’re trying to break it down. Any other thoughts?,” I asked.

“Maybe something about literature….?,” another student guessed timidly.

“Now we’re on to something!” I turned to the board and wrote:

Literacy – (n.) the ability to read and write

I could tell from the class’s reaction that this was a word many of them had heard before, but perhaps hadn’t given it much thought for several years. To get the conversation started, I showed my class the following video. It was created by Room to Read, an organization that builds libraries and schools, while also training teachers and funding scholarships for girls. It was started by a former Microsoft executive, John Wood, who was inspired to help solve the world’s literacy problems after a trip to Nepal. This man left behind an incredibly lucrative job (he even had meetings with Bill Gates) to pursue a cause that he found much more meaningful, and he’s a role model of mine because of it. Lindsey gave me his book for Christmas, and it was a phenomenal and inspiring read. You can find it here.

“Was anyone successful?,” I asked. The class chuckled before claiming that it was impossible not to read the text flashed right before their eyes. “For you, that may be true. But for the 1 in 7 adults who can’t read, it’s a harsh reality.”

We started brainstorming a list of things that we wouldn’t be able to accomplish without being able to read or write. Not surprisingly, it was a long list, and included things that were in the video as well as many things that weren’t. Just to share a few:

  • Get a job
  • Secure a promotion
  • Send text messages or e-mails
  • Drive (due to not being able to read signs, maps, etc.)
  • Write song lyrics
  • Graduate
  • Complete a Google search
  • Read the news
  • Understand the labels on our medicines

I then asked what jobs someone could hold without being able to read our write. This list was noticeably shorter. I challenged their suggestions of taxi driver (hard to read signs or a map) and maid/cleaner (good luck reading the complex names of chemicals), and the class started to understand that just about any job would be impossible (or significantly more difficult) without reading and writing skills. Ultimately, my class decided that the most likely job for someone who can’t read would be “somewhere in the woods.”

Once my students better understood what life might be like if they were illiterate, I posed the next question: “Do you think people who can’t read are less intelligent?”

The first couple of answers indicated the belief that yes, people who can’t read are less intelligent. One student described walking into a room with two people in it. “If one person can read and write, and the other person can’t, I will know the one who is literate is smarter.”

A few other students then began to argue back that a person can be smart even if they’ve never had the opportunity to learn to read and write. That’s where I interjected my own personal belief that where you start life shouldn’t dictate where you finish life, and that everyone should have access to an education. My students were starting to understand that they were fortunate to have educational opportunities that roughly 250 million children don’t.

I then asked “What do you think Bulgaria’s literacy rate is?” Most guesses ranged from 60% – 90%, and my students were pleasantly surprised to learn that according to the last census, Bulgaria’s literacy rate is 98.4%. I had my students brainstorm which countries they thought had some of the highest and lowest literacy rates. Their guesses for highest literacy rates were mostly in Western Europe (Germany, France, The Netherlands, Finland, etc.) and their guesses for lowest literacy rates were primarily in Africa. Then we examined Literacy rates by country (I recommend you take a few minutes to peruse this list, and leave a comment below about something that stood out to you!). We sorted the list from highest to lowest and vice versa to better understand where the world’s biggest problems with literacy were.

                      Bottom 15 countries by overall Literacy Rate:

                    Country                            Lit %        Lit % (M)     Lit % (F)

Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 9.00.13 PM

I wanted my students to walk away with two key insights:

  • Africa has many countries with shockingly low literacy rates; 11 of the bottom 12 countries by literacy rate are in Africa, with Afghanistan being the exception
  • Women have much lower literacy rates than men, and that’s a huge problem

To wrap up the class, we listened to the song Billy Can’t Read by Paul Overstreet (lyrics below). The messages I wanted my students to take from this song were:

  • Billy has to work twice as hard to complete a job that pays minimum wage
  • Not being able to read can be embarrassing for people
  • Being illiterate can halt career progress even if you work hard
  • Sometimes families have to choose to send one child to school over another because one is needed to work
  • Many illiterate people are willing to work hard to learn if given the opportunity!

Billy Can’t Read Lyrics

His Mama and his daddy were very poor,
And they never went to school.
Billy followed in their footsteps,
Like a lot of children do.
He had to get a job to help pay the bills,
So His younger brother Ben
Might go to school
And learn to read and write
And maybe he could teach all of them..

But Billy can’t read,
No Billy can’t read.
But he gives 200% for the minimum wage that he receives.
Sometimes he pretends like he can as he looks
And he laughs at the pictures in the funny books
But it really ain’t funny you see
That Billy can’t read.

Then the boss man came around to
Talk to Billy one day.
He said, now Billy you’re the hardest worker I’ve Got
and you surely deserve more pay
But the boss at the top says
I’ve got to give every foreman a written test
Billy hung his head cause he knew right then he’d always have to settle for less

But Billy can’t read,
No Billy can’t read.
But he gives 200% for the minimum wage that he receives.
Sometimes he pretends like he can as he looks
And he laughs at the pictures in the funny books
But it really ain’t funny you see
That Billy can’t read.

Little Ben never took for granted
All his brother Billy’s sacrifice.
Every night while the family slept
They would sit up late by that old lamp light
Sounding out the A’s and the E’s and the I’s, O’s and U’s
Now he’s reading everything from the cereal box
To the Bible three times through.

Cause Billy can read, yeah Billy can read.
Now the rest of this life will be different
Because of the special gift he received.
Now he don’t have to act like he’s laughing as he looks
at the silly pictures in the funny books
they’re as funny as they can be
now that Billy can read

Yeah his life is much better you see,
Now that Billy can read.

Overall, the students seemed very interested in the lesson, and I hope they walked away with a better appreciation for the learning opportunities they’ve had. I also tried to emphasize that many of them were uniquely positioned to be successful because they are literate in multiple languages.

On a more personal note, I wanted to share how incredibly proud I am of my mom for the volunteer work she is currently doing. A special education teacher by profession, she has always impressed me with her patience and commitment to her students. Over the past few years, she has helped combat illiteracy by teaching adults in her Greensboro, NC community how to read. It’s clear that she loves the work and it seems her students are making rapid progress under her supervision. I also admire the dedication of her students. Despite being well past the age most people learn to read, they recognize the importance of this skill and are tirelessly pursuing an education.