Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Teacher Who Couldn't Read

Did you know that in 1993:

--Between 21 and 23 percent of adults in America were unable to perform simple tasks such as filling out a job application, managing a checking account, and reading street signs?
--Between 25 and 28 percent of the adult population of the U.S. said they got help from family members or friends with everyday prose, documents, and simple literary tasks?
--20% of these same people with at the lowest level of literacy…had somehow received high school diplomas?

Just to be sure these statistics weren’t irrelevant and obsolete, I checked for more recent statistics. In 2003, a mere eight years ago, the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (http://nces.ed.gov/naal) found that 14 percent of the adult population of America is nearly illiterate or completely illiterate, with no more than the most basic literacy skills.  29 percent are slightly above that level, but are literate enough only to perform simple, everyday tasks.  44 percent can perform moderately challenging literary activities, while only 13 percent of the population is considered “proficient” in our written language.

What exactly does illiteracy mean for an individual?  When I discovered the innumerable obstacles one illiterate person had to face, I was completely astounded.  In The Teacher Who Couldn’t Read by John Corcoran with Carole C. Carlson, Corcoran details his journey from being an insecure, violent child to his turbulent marriage – all affected tremendously by his inability to read.

Reading this book was an interesting experience for me.  In the beginning, when Corcoran was explaining how he somehow went through grade school without any teacher ever taking it upon him or herself to teach “Johnny” to read, I explained it away by telling myself that the teaching methods used in the 40’s and 50’s, when Corcoran was in school, are outdated and are never used anymore.  But the more I read and the more I thought about students in our schools these days, the more I realized what a problem illiteracy still is in our country and the world.

For me, learning to read was as basic and simple as learning to walk, so I often don’t think much of it.  I never realized how important learning to read was in my development.  Corcoran describes failing to teach a child to read as “child abuse” – at first this seems a shocking claim, but after reading about the consequences of Corcoran’s illiteracy, I tend to agree.

Not only was Corcoran unable to read, he was also unable to speak properly because of his illiteracy.  He had bad pronunciation because he never saw the way words were spelled (he didn’t even know the alphabet).  He couldn’t form a proper sentence; he often trailed off without really completing his sentences.  Sometimes he couldn’t create a logical, coherent explanation of what he was trying to say; his wife constantly felt she had to “fill in the blanks” for him when he was talking with other people.  Before reading this book, I had no idea the ability to read had such an effect on one’s ability to speak.

Not only did Corcoran experience verbal challenges as a result of his illiteracy, he also had to sacrifice his integrity.  All his life, Corcoran spent an enormous amount of energy just trying to keep others from finding out the secret of his illiteracy.  He managed to cheat his way through high school and college, and even to become a high school teacher, after which he successfully started a real estate business.  How did John Corcoran manage this without the ability to read?  Only countless lies, layered upon one another, saved him from revealing his illiteracy.  He often faked an entirely different personality in order to get out of reading.  He would pretend to be volatile and demanding so he would “have his way” and not be required to read.  Corcoran sacrificed his own character to cheat his way through life so he would not be considered “stupid” by others.  And I can’t honestly blame him – because if he had been discovered, he would have been considered stupid.

After reading this book, I realized that this book review has to be different from other reviews I’ve done, because this is not your normal, average book.  How can I critique the writing when it’s the work of a man who has barely learned to write?  How can I evaluate the content when the content is not meant to be entertaining or even merely interesting, but in and of itself is a big red F on the educational system in America?  If one clever boy could manipulate the system so much that he got through not only high school, but college without reading a single sentence, how can we be sure that students today aren’t managing this same trick?

Corcoran says that America’s teachers are at fault for failing to teach each child to read.  But that’s one statement I’m not sure I agree with.  To me, the most shocking part of the book is that Corcoran fooled even his parents into believing he could read.  How could his parents possibly have missed that their son was illiterate?  And these were not absent parents, or parents who didn’t care; although they were poor, Corcoran’s parents loved and spent time with their children.  When Corcoran’s mother finally discovered her son’s literacy problem, she couldn’t believe she had somehow let it slip past her.

So who is to blame?  Corcoran’s teachers?  His parents?  Personally, I would say none of them – and all of them, at the same time.  In fact, the fault lies with all of us as a nation.  What kind of a society do we live in when children are sent to someone else to learn such vital skills as reading – someone who may not have the child’s best interests at heart?  Yes, Corcoran had some very neglectful grade school teachers, but the fact is that we can’t eradicate bad teachers from the system.  No matter how carefully teachers are watched, they’re still human, and they might sometimes neglect to properly teach a child.  Whose responsibility is it to make sure the child is learning basic skills?  The parents – the people who (should) care the most about the child.  But society and the government have far too many of us convinced that the parents have no responsibility for their child’s education; all the parents need to do is make sure their kid gets on the bus and goes to school every day, and someone else will take care of it. 

So, maybe I have too much to say against modern parents.  But it’s not just parents; teachers, administrators, and so many others are going out of their way to assure parents that their child will be taught by someone competent and trustworthy.  Sometimes these people even discourage parents from trying to teach their own children.  And the parents, feeling reassured, unwittingly leave their child’s education in the hands of what too often turns out to be an incompetent and untrustworthy teacher.

What if we lived in a society where parents actually took it upon themselves to see to it that their kids were being taught, whether by them or by someone else?  Better yet, what if we lived in a society where literature was a fundamental of family life – where family members talked about books instead of TV, recommended and discussed books with each other, shared their literary opinions and preferences?  If families lived like this, how could it be possible that a child could fall through the cracks and fail to learn to read?

I think illiteracy is an even broader problem than we might realize – not just a problem with our educational system, but our society itself.  And while changing the school system will help, and already has (as the statistics show), I believe that ultimately the illiteracy problem can only be completely resolved through a change in societal thinking – and it will be resolved one family at a time. 


  1. I just watched a video on fb about how throwing money at the education system doesn't fix it. And of course we all wonder why. The answer is...you have to TARGET the money at the specific problem, not just make the buildings nicer. What a shock! Spending an average of $13,000 a year per student doesn't guarantee their success, at least not in our education system. But I have to think, what an amazing education I could give my own child if they would just give me the $13,000 a year...(although I think Utah spends less than that)...

    The video's point was that we need to go back to the basics, not try to make everything fancier. Which leads me to my current philosophy about public elementary education. We need a "kids-with-stay-at-home-moms" option: teach the kids to read, write, basic math, then send the kids home. Three hours a day, max. Then class sizes could be cut in half, since there would be time for two classes taught by one teacher each day, allowing for more one-on-one attention and hence fewer children missing out on the essentials. Then they get to come home to loving parents who do the rest: science experiments, field trips, educational games, music lessons, cuddling on the sofa together with good books, and imaginative play like your post a couple days ago. And by the way, no homework. I'm not giving my very young child to you for hours each day just so they can come home to more paperwork.

    Secondary education is a different ballgame. I'm still figuring that one out.

  2. I love it, Annette! Someone should put you in charge...

  3. So... I totally agree with you on a lot of this... and I haven't read the book or anything... but I am sitting here thinking... he never asked anyone to teach him? Not once? I mean, I know that a kid is not responsible... but even when he was a teenager in high school... he was more willing to sacrifice his character than a little embarrassment of his parents finding out he couldn't read. And even then, that wasn't his fault. It was his teachers. So, even though I think it is mostly the teacher's and parent's fault... he is partially at fault. Then again, I haven't read the book, so I have no idea if he asked or not.

  4. Annette, I completely agree with your "kids-with-stay-at-home-moms" option. The popular solution in our country is to keep kids in school longer, but in elementary school, I think they actually need a shorter day. The working parents want free day care, though, so a shorter school day will never be generally viewed as a good solution. It was crazy when they mandated full-day kindergarten at Green. When I volunteered there, all I did was baby-sit the kids while they did non-creative busywork. They would have been way better off playing at home.

    I do wonder what is considered "illiterate," though. Ken often asks me to proof-read his blogs, and he makes some silly grammar and spelling mistakes. He reads at a very high level, though, and he probably has a bigger vocabulary than I do. I think most of us in our family are visual learners, so we notice errors in the written word, but Ken is an auditory learner. I love his writing, but I don't think it would get a high grade on a literacy test. I'm just not sure that it's such a big deal. Some people are designed for careful and literate writing. Some people really have to work at it. A complete inability to read is obviously a problem, but I think if a person can perform basic literary tasks, that might be enough for them. People have different strengths.