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NM searches for answers to ‘Why Johnny Can’t Read’

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Learning to read can open a person’s world to success and unlimited possibilities. In contrast, the inability to read can set the same person up for a world of cascading disappointments.

More than 65 years ago, educator and writing consultant Rudolf Flesch agreed to tutor a boy who had been held back in the sixth grade because he couldn’t read. Flesch discovered the boy had never been taught how to sound out letters or put them together to form words. Once the boy had that key, he quickly unlocked the magic to reading and literacy.

Flesch went on to write the 1955 bestseller and exposé on American reading education, “Why Johnny Can’t Read.”

In 1981, he penned a follow-up exposé: “Why Johnny Still Can’t Read.”

In New Mexico today, there are too many Johnnys, Miguels, Marias and Nancys, not all of them children, who are unable to read beyond a rudimentary level.

In fact, 29% of New Mexico adults read at the level of a 5- to 7-year-old.

Imagine trying to write a résumé; read notes from your child’s teacher; fill out basic forms for a driver’s license, insurance or rental agreement, or understand notes or directions from a doctor.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that data shows a strong correlation between low literacy and higher underemployment and unemployment, poverty, poor health, behavioral health issues, low self-esteem, teen pregnancies, drug and alcohol abuse, divorce and involvement in the criminal justice system.

And with New Mexico’s literacy ranking of 49th in the United States, it should not be surprising to see the state’s poor performance in so many key indictors, such as education, poverty, child well-being, drug use and crime.

‘Literacy Project’

Today, the Albuquerque Journal, in conjunction with KOAT television and KKOB radio, launches “The Literacy Project,” a yearlong initiative aimed at shining a spotlight on New Mexico’s literacy challenges with the goal of providing insight, possible solutions and a database of available resources to improve outcomes for both children and adults.

For most, a successful path to literacy begins well before high school.

“If children are not ready to learn by the time they reach kindergarten, they’re already compromised. When they start from behind, too often they will end up behind,” said James Jimenez, executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children.

That’s a key reason his organization believes “that expanding early childhood education programs is absolutely vital for increasing literacy opportunities.”

And students who fall behind in school are more likely to drop out altogether.

A report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that students who were not proficient readers by the end of third grade were four times more likely to drop out of high school.

“Educators often say that at about the third grade, children move from learning to read to reading to learn,” Jimenez said.

Gloria Rael, executive director of Albuquerque Adult Learning Center, estimated that in the central New Mexico region of Bernalillo, Sandoval, Torrance and Valencia counties, there are 60,000 people over age 18 who lack high school diplomas.

Quite simply, she said, New Mexico has a reading, writing and simple math problem and has had it for decades. And the supporting statistics on the state’s literacy rate can be overwhelming.

NM 49th in US

New Mexico ranks 49th in the nation in literacy, barely ahead of Louisiana.

According to the Kids Count Data Book for the state, 76% of fourth graders are not proficient in reading, 79% of eighth graders are not proficient in math, 26% of high school students do not graduate on time, and 12% of teenagers are neither in school nor working.

New Mexico literacy rates have shown little significant progress in 20 years.

“In a highly complex world, like the one that we live in, technical skills are required to compete effectively for well-paying jobs,” Jimenez said. “It’s really difficult to compete for those jobs if you don’t have the basic literacy skills that an employer needs you to have.”

People with low literacy skills are four times more likely to have poor health, according to New York-based ProLiteracy, a nonprofit that supports literacy programs. Those adults have a higher chance of having to go to the emergency room, something that costs U.S. taxpayers between $106 billion and $238 billion each year.

People with low literacy levels are less likely to be politically engaged and understand what’s going on in government, and more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system, ProLiteracy said.

Nationwide, 75% of individuals incarcerated in state facilities have low literacy and did not complete high school. Incarcerated individuals who participate in literacy programs are 43% less likely to become repeat offenders.

Despite the dismal statistics, New Mexico lacks a statewide task force or similar body to tackle the problem in a coordinated way. The Journal, KOAT-TV and KKOB radio plan to highlight literacy over the next 12 months, feature some of the successful programs and compile and make available a running list of resources for children and adults.

The Journal welcomes suggestions about current programs to add to the database – available at abqjournal.com – and welcomes story suggestions for the coming months. Email mmurphy@abqjournal.com or rnathanson@abqjournal.com.



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