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Illiteracy: What if it could kill you?

by Paolo Martin 

Raising the literacy skills of our children has been a major issue for decades.  As a result, the face of literacy instruction throughout the years has changed, sometimes cyclically, to include various approaches such as explicit phonics, "look and say," shared reading, whole language, learning centers, one-on-one support, etc.  With all of the different ways of teaching reading currently on the market today, it's no wonder parents, educators, and other stake-holders interested in the well-being of children and society sometimes fight over the elusive "best practices."  In the area of comprehension, some say that children need explicit phonics to free up cognitive energy to understand text.  Others say that children need to focus primarily on negotiating the meaning(s) behind texts as an authentic process.  Still others say that the best way to get kids to understand the world better is to have them read novels from grade-appropriate canons.

With all of these philosophies being thrown around today, especially in light of government-influenced educational practices in schools ala NCLB, what is the bottom line?  What does it really mean for our kids to be sufficiently "literate"?  Well, if you ask a doctor the bottom line for what works best medically for his/her patients, you might get a response like, "Whatever will help him/her live a longer, healthier, happier life."  So, could leading a "longer, healthier, happier life" be at a least a major goal-and perhaps even the bottom line--when we try to think about what would work best for our kids in terms of literacy?  According to Lindsay Tanner, Associated Press Medical Writer, in an article called "What You Don't Understand Could Kill You," a study of people 65 or older showed that those who couldn't understand basic written medical instructions were much more likely to die within six years than those who had no problems with comprehension. She writes,

One-fourth of the 3,260 patients in the study were considered medically illiterate. That was based on tests of their ability to read common medical information, including prescription labels, appointment slips and instructions on how to prepare for an X-ray.

Almost 40 percent of those deemed medically illiterate died during the study, compared with 19 percent of those who were literate. Factoring in health at the outset and other variables, medically illiterate patients were 50 percent more likely to die than the others.

If I knew that my children's immediate survival depended on their literacy skills, I would make sure they got the reading instruction that worked best for them.  Like medical patients who receive care specific to their needs, our kids' literacy needs should also be considered as individual cases.  One day their lives might just depend on it.

Tags: illiteracy, cultural literacy, functional literacy, medical literacy

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