According to the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), fully two-thirds of students do not read at proficient levels in fourth and eighth grades. The implications of having only one-third of our future citizens critically prepared for full participation in a democratic society are profound. These implications will significantly affect the intellectual, social, emotional, ethical, and economic potential of thousands of students.
These conditions persist despite the fact that research provides knowledge on how children learn to read and on how best to teach them to do so. The critical key to improving reading outcomes is improving the preparation of teachers, which is a central aspect of the Center’s role in the UC/CSU Collaborative, funded by the state of California. By expanding the pre-service and professional development of teachers to include the new research on the comprehensive, systematic teaching of reading, particularly in the neurosciences, we aim to develop state-wide changes in literacy in our children.
If successful, this model could influence how this basic human right can be pursued across other states and around the world. It is within our reach.
Literacy is twice-transformative: it is both the foundation for unleashing the cognitive potential of every child, and it is our best-known vehicle for propelling the intellectual expansion of the species. During its acquisition, literacy propels the development of new, neuronal networks in the young reader’s brain. These networks increase connectivity between vision and language areas. In the process, they create a reading brain that is the platform for increasingly complex thought.
Across time the emergence of literacy encouraged the development of ever more sophisticated modes of thought, which, in turn, accelerated the development of vast new forms of knowledge in the history of the species. Indeed, history itself would be impossible without the invention and dissemination of literacy. The reading brain circuit is one of the most important, epigenetic-based changes in human development.
Currently, however, large and increasing numbers of our population will never acquire sufficient levels of literacy to contribute their full potential to our culture. Close to ten percent of English-speaking children and adults have dyslexia, a largely neurologically based, cognitive difference in how the brain processes written language. Of related concern, another one-third of US children will never become sufficiently proficient in reading to develop their cognitive and economic potential.
With reasons often rooted in environmental factors like poverty and poor educational instruction, African-American and Latino children are disproportionately represented in this group with over sixty percent of African-American children and over fifty percent of Latino children failing to gain full literacy. In New York City, 82,000 homeless children are, for all purposes, itinerant pupils with little chance of attaining literacy and the modes of thought it develops. In Los Angeles and all our large cities, similar numbers of children literally fall through the cracks of the educational system.
Our connected world is still more difficult: 57 million children have no school; 200 million children will never acquire true literacy due to inadequate schooling; and 600 million adults (two-thirds women) are non-literate. These figures will only increase with the extraordinary numbers of refugee children dispersing around the globe from conflict and environmental degradation. The total waste of human potential with implications for health, poverty, gender equality, and intellectual achievement is incalculable.
Advances in three areas have the capacity to significantly change these realities:
- cognitive neuroscience and neurobiological research on learning, the reading brain circuit and its components (e.g., vision, language)
- cost-effective, technological solutions for learning in difficult contexts
- translational research in education on the “new literacies”, e.g., reading, numeracy, and digital literacy – and their implementation in schools.