An Edge on Youth Literacy
The Promises and Challenges of
Story by Cheryl Howell
Photos by Mark Bell
On weekday afternoons during the school year, the media center at
the Clarence B. Sabbath Elementary School in River Rouge fills with
noisy and rambunctious kindergarten through fifth grade students.
After a snack and a few minutes to greet their peers and talk about
their day, the students know it’s time to get to work.
“Reading is really enforced,” said Madeline
J. Flowers, coordinator of the River Rouge School District’s
Opportunity Center, the after-school family literacy program at
Sabbath. “At first, most of them were really resistant. They
would go ‘ohhhhh’ and complain, but look at them now.
They have to spend at least 20 minutes reading each day. We encourage
them to read out loud here and at home to their parents and siblings.”
The Sabbath Opportunity Center is one of 38 community-based sites
across Michigan where Michigan State University Extension’s
4-H Youth Development programs are helping children build literacy
skills. The 4-H Club Read program and other MSU research and outreach
initiatives are focused on encouraging schools, communities and
families help children build a foundation for a lifetime of reading
and writing. Researchers are exploring what models are most effective,
and what approaches can best lead to school readiness and positive
outcomes for children. This work, alongside the real life experiences
of programs like Sabbath's, is identifying the challenges to literacy,
like working with parents who can’t read, or with children
who live in poverty or are in poor health, and showing that developing
strong literacy skills requires active family involvement at all
phases of a child’s life – especially from birth through
their early school years.
“Emergent literacy is a whole area of research that has been
looking at what kids learn about reading and writing before school,”
said Victoria Purcell-Gates, MSU professor of education. “There
is a great deal of data that shows kids learn a lot about reading
and writing before they read and write. But, all of this depends
on how much young kids see people reading and writing in their home.”
Sowing the seeds for literacy begins at an early age. Well before
they enter school, children learn fundamental concepts that lay
the groundwork for reading and writing. Youngsters who have been
read to and are exposed to print and written materials in their
homes, are more likely to understand that print is a language and
symbol system that represents individual sounds, that there are
distinctions between oral and written language, and that there are
frameworks for syntax and vocabulary.
Most researchers agree that parental involvement is critical not
only for developing these emergent literacy skills but also for
building a more literate school-age population. To address this
intergenerational nature of literacy, the U.S. Department of Education
suggests that family literacy programs integrate “interactive
literacy activities between parent and child; training in parenting
activities; literacy training that leads to economic self-sufficiency
and age-appropriate education that prepares children for success
in school and life experiences.”
This multi-faceted approach is also recommended and modeled by national
groups like the National Center for Family Literacy, which has led
the family literacy movement in America. Programs, like the one
at Sabbath, tie parent literacy to early child learning—showing
parents literacy activities to do at home with their children, and
helping parents develop their own literacy and life management skills.
Sabbath is an effort of the Michigan Reading Readiness Project and
an MSU Extension 4-H Club Read program, which establishes year-round,
in-school and out-of-school tutoring and mentoring literacy programs,
staffed by local volunteers and trained Americorps members.
T he goals of 4-H Club Read are to increase children’s literacy
skills, build their interest in reading for pleasure across a variety
of literary genres and increase the time children spend reading.
Parents of children enrolled in programs have opportunities to interact
and learn with their child around literacy activities. They can
discover ways to improve literacy interaction at home and manage
the stress that might prevent them from being involved advocates
in their children’s learning.
is the MSU
Extension Children, Youth and Family Programs Information Officer
the full feature story, please see page 20 in MSU
Club Read, MSU Extension
Contact Sue Henry,
or call 517-432-7683 for a 4-H Club Read program in your community.
A Path to Follow: Learning to Listen to Parents (1999) available
“Parents as Partners in Reading” and “Talking
Your Way to Literacy” programs help non-reading parents
prepare their children for reading. For availability contact
Edwards at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other People's Words: The Cycle of Low Literacy (1997) and
Now We Read, We See, We Speak: Portrait of Literacy Development
in an Adult Freirean-Based Class (2000) both available in
Sites to Watch
Report Card (National Center for Educational Statistics)
Department of Education
More than 20 percent of American adults read
at or below a fifth-grade level.
43 percent of people with low-literacy skills live in poverty
and 70 percent have no job or only a part-time job.
Children’s literacy levels are strongly linked to their
parent’s educational level.
The 2000 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)
showed U.S. fourth graders average reading scores have seen
little change since 1992, but the gap is widening between lower
and higher performing students.