Literacy as an economic development tool

While I loved to read as a kid, my brother Mike — my Irish twin less than a year younger than me — did not like to read. He struggled as a reader. He also struggled as a student. Today, teachers identify and help a student like Mike at a very young age. Back then, kids got lost.

Fortunately, my brother met a teacher who loved reading as much as he loved teaching. My brother recalls he was a persistent man so when he handed my brother “The Hobbit” to read, Mike read it. I asked whether he enjoyed reading it, and he said he enjoyed the adventure and that “the character was on a route to discovery,” as he termed it.

My brother was on a route to discovery, too. When he entered college, Mike met other kids he admired and respected and all of them were readers. Reading, as he told me, “became cool.” So he not only learned to read, he learned to love to read. My brother became a teacher partly because he did not want kids to struggle the way he had. Today he serves as headmaster for a prestigious private school in Florida.

Mike gobbles up books like some of us gobble up popcorn. When I called to talk with him about reading, I accidentally interrupted his Sunday reading time. He just finished “The Book of Harlan,” but, as is his habit, he is flipping between several other books including “Leaders Eat Last” and “Most Likely to Succeed.” He’s quick to add he has also squeezed in a (John) Grisham book and his favorite book so far this year is “The Boys in the Boat,” about the 1936 U.S. Olympic crew team who competed in Nazi Germany.

What if my brother had not crossed paths with this teacher and those college classmates who inspired a love of reading? How very different his life would have been.

I have been in classrooms recently observing teachers who are able to give individual attention to students as they sit at computer stations and are able to go at their own pace through activities that reinforce lessons. Additional supports are available to very young students to help them become proficient readers. This is critically important to their academic success as well as their social development. I have read many a report about unacceptably high dropout rates in high school. While there are a number of variables, the inability to read is always on that list.

There has been significant research to show a person’s ability to obtain and hold a job and their lifelong earning potential can be correlated to their ability to read. Ohio has a program called ABLE which aims to reduce adult illiteracy, among other things. Locally, the program is housed at Lorain County Community College.

Just as we encourage the young ones in our lives to read, we need to encourage other adults to read, too. For those who struggle, for whatever reason, I hope you will let them know about the ABLE program. Perhaps gentle encouragement will help them overcome hesitation or fear about learning how ABLE can be of help.

People should not be held back from feeling good about themselves and securing well-paying jobs because they cannot read well. Truth is, even many skilled jobs today require a worker be able to read a manual or work on a computer. There is no shame in not being able to read well. It would be a shame if we, as a community, did not work to reduce adult illiteracy.


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