Years Of Schooling Leaves Some Students Illiterate

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Author Beth Fertig says that as many as 20 percent of American adults may be functionally illiterate. They may recognize letters and words, but can't read directions on a bus sign or a medicine bottle, read or write a letter, or hold most any job. Her new book, Why cant U teach me 2 read, follows three young New Yorkers who legally challenged the New York City public schools for failing to teach them how to read — and won. Host Scott Simon talks to Fertig about her book.


The United States has a literacy rate of 99 percent. That's equal to Japan, Denmark, Finland and the United Kingdom. But in her new book, "Why cant U teach me 2 read," three students and a mayor put our schools to the test. Beth Fertig says that as many as 20 percent of American adults may be functionally illiterate. They may recognize letters and words, but they cannot read directions on a bus sign or a medicine bottle, read or write a letter, or hold most any job.

Beth Fertig, who's a senior reporter at our member station WNYC in New York, follows three young New Yorkers who legally challenged the New York City Public Schools for failing to teach them how to read, and won. Beth Fertig joins us from WNYC. Beth, thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. BETH FERTIG (Author, "Why cant U teach me 2 read"): Thank you.

SIMON: And tell us about Yamilka, Alejandro and Antonio.

Ms. FERTIG: I met Yamilka when I was working on a story for WNYC about the low graduation rates of special-education students. She had graduated high school a couple of years earlier at the age of 21 knowing only eight letters of the alphabet, and she was so embarrassed, she told me, that she didn't even want to buy the cap and gown. She thought - why should I bother? Her mother was furious.

And Yamilka, with the help of her attorneys, was able to prove that as a student with learning disabilities, the city never met her needs as required by federal law. There's extra protections, and that is how she won the equivalent of about $120,000 of private tutoring at the city's expense.

SIMON: How do people get to high school without knowing how to read?

Ms. FERTIG: In Yamilka's case, she and her brother, Alejandro, had moved here from the Dominican Republic. Their parents came first and took their two older siblings, and they stayed behind where because of some family problems, they didn't go to elementary school. So they came here not having, you know, an early start in school, missing out on those critical years of first grade, second grade. And then when they got to the New York City Public Schools, they were sent to English as a Second Language classes, and it took years for anyone to figure out that they had learning disabilities.

In this case, the parents had no formal education of their own or very little from their native countries, so they didn't know how to navigate the system and give their children the early start in reading. And when the kids got into trouble, they really didn't know about their rights and what to do. And that's why it took a long time.

So it was a combination of the family's own lack of education, and then winding up in schools that didn't do a lot. And then these children were, of course, very complicated cases themselves.

SIMON: Your book revisits a debate that's been going on for years about how to teach reading. Is it letters or whole words? Is it the look/say method versus phonics or whole language methods?

Could you help us understand what some of the differences are?

Ms. FERTIG: Most kids are going to learn to read no matter what you give them. Seventy-five, 80 percent of kids are going to learn how to read. But there are some children for whom they're going to need a specific type of instruction. And specifically, children who are poor, whose parents don't have that much education, who aren't read to at an early age, they start off at a disadvantage. And there's a lot of research that suggests that if you give them intensive phonics, they can do better in school later on.

There was a study that found that children from an educated or college-educated, middle-class family will have heard 30 million words or utterances by the time they were 3 years old - which was 20 million more than the children from poor families. So this gap is what everybody in education is saying, how do we overcome this? Because if we could get children going to school prepared, then they're more likely to do better later on.

SIMON: The No Child Left Behind Act is often criticized. But you suggest in this book that it perhaps did force teachers to not just let a certain percentage of students slip through the cracks.

Ms. FERTIG: That is the one thing that I do hear from a lot of different people is, by not just looking at how a whole school did and saying, you know, 60 or 70 percent of our kids passed the test, they now have to look at how did our Hispanic kids do, how did our black students do, how did our special-ed students do, how did English language learners do - students who aren't born to parents who speak English.

And this way, by just aggregating the data, they're able to see which kids are falling behind and hopefully target them and give them more interventions, more help with their reading. And the ideal is that a child like Yamilka isn't going to be caught, you know, in high school and they're going to figure out then that they weren't reading.

SIMON: You make a point in the book you can't get a job cracking rocks these days without having to probably fill out a computer form as to how many rocks you cracked.

Ms. FERTIG: Exactly. Antonio is now working at UPS as a loader. He had to take a basic orientation test. And because he had improved his reading skills to a fourth- or fifth-grade level, he was able to pass that. But he feels stuck now.

There's not a lot else he can do to move up and get a better-paying job unless he gets his GED. So there are a lot of people in this country who are reading below the level that we would consider you need. But on the other hand, I think as a country, we now have to deal with, what do we do with those students who are not going to be able to graduate with the higher-level skills? Are there jobs that we can train them for? And that's a debate that's going on right now.

SIMON: Beth Fertig is a senior reporter at WNYC. Her new book, "Why cant U teach me 2 read: Three Students and a Mayor Put Our Schools to the Test."

Beth, thanks so much.

Ms. FERTIG: Thank you.

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