One of my favorite newsletters has nothing to do with healthcare. It's called The Readers Exchange, out of Studio City, Calif. As the title hints, it's for people who love books. Its pages are filled with reviews and insightful passages on reading and writing. The publisher, Stephen Ackerman, does a superb job of introducing each issue with lively commentary from a variety of sources. For instance, in the current issue (Summer 1998) he quotes Mortimer J. Adler on reading: "There is only one situation I can think of in which men and women make an effort to read better than they usually do. When they are in love and reading a love letter, they read for all they are worth. They read every word three ways; they read between the lines and in the margins. . . . They may even take the punctuation into account. Then, if never before or after, they read."
In an item preceding the Adler quote, Ackerman discusses a March editorial in the Wall Street Journal titled "Spelling Disaster," which chronicled the failure of a new method of teaching children to read. According to Ackerman, evidence is mounting that the old-fashioned phonics approach is more effective than the "whole language" method being used in many schools today. "In phonics, kids learn to sound out each word and endure flash card drills, whereas in whole language, the word is viewed in its `contextual' setting in which the child is not constrained by the annoying specifics of grammar and spelling," Ackerman writes. "California pioneered the whole language approach in 1987, and by 1995 the state tied Louisiana for the worst reading scores in the country. A stunned Legislature reversed this, but whole language continues elsewhere (it's become a political issue), while the U.S. joins a small group of developed nations that has failed to improve literacy over the past generation."
Think about that. What a dreary and difficult world this must be for those who have trouble reading. Things as basic as reading a street sign or a label on a prescription bottle become a struggle. And they can't enjoy the books, magazines and newspapers many of us devour to stay informed and be entertained. Adding to the problem is that if kids aren't learning to read, they're not learning to write. Reading comes first, then writing skills. Talk to teachers from grade school to the university level, and the picture is bleak. In many schools students cannot put one simple sentence together.
Today we have more sophisticated technology than ever before. Grandiose announcements are made seemingly daily about some new software or state-of-the-art device. Fortunes are made by entrepreneurs who develop these new products, and Wall Street greets them with unbridled enthusiasm. But high technology requires high skill levels. If our citizens can't read adequately and can't write, somewhere down the road all this technology will go to waste.
One reason we as a society are called civilized is because we supposedly have the ability to communicate with one another. Reading and writing skills are fundamental. You might think I'm exaggerating the problem, but I've had firsthand experience with the lack of reading and writing skills among our young people. Too many of the letters I receive from recent college graduates are riddled with misspellings and grammatical errors. It raises a lot of questions, one of them being, how the devil did they get into college in the first place?
We are constantly warned about Y2K computer problems and the coming new millennium. The experts warn that all kinds of disasters are lurking if we don't update critical software being used by government and the private sector. I've heard every scenario imaginable, some quite scary. But I'm not as pessimistic as some are. I think we'll greet the year 2000 with aplomb. But I do see a real disaster in the not-too-distant future if we don't do something about reading and writing skills. That's probably a greater emergency than anything else.
It's as simple as A,B,C,
Charles S. Lauer