Reading coalition’s goal: to improve literacy in county

Most people who read don’t realize how remarkable that ability is. As today’s job market demand greater skills and the economic future becomes more technologically driven, being literate is particularly important. The inability to read makes life substantially more difficult but also has an effect on society. That’s why engaging children in reading activities even before they go to school has long-term and lasting benefits. 

Historically, US census information from 1850 and 1860 suggests that somewhere between 75% and 90% of adult whites were literate.  The range is due to the way literacy is defined. In the 19th century, a person was considered literate if he could read a simple sentence. Today, literacy is a different issue than in earlier years. The more recent focus on literacy has centered on adult functional literacy, which addresses the issue of whether a person's educational level is sufficient to function in a modern society. 

In the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy, young adults without postsecondary education experienced difficulties in obtaining career positions. Research revealed that low and below basic literacy rates were characteristic of individuals lacking higher education. Thus, improving and sustaining mass literacy at earlier stages in education has become a focus of American leaders and policymakers.

Locally, the Interim Library Director for the Humboldt Library Jessica Anderson said she has met with local leaders to form a reading coalition for the county. The program is in partnership with United Way of Northern Nevada and the Sierra, which recently received an award for its reading by grade level program. 

Anderson says the idea is to bring the community together to address literacy issues in the county. She said the first meeting focused on mainly improving children's literacy. According to the National Right to Read Foundation (NRRF), only 32% of 4th grade students and 31% of 8th grade students read at grade level. 

One trend that may be contributing to poor reading skills is children not attending school. United Way Northern Nevada and the Sierra CEO Michael Brazier says that one in 10 kindergarten and first-grade students across the nation are chronically absent. These missed days may be spread throughout the year, but they add up to nearly a month of lost instruction. These early absences correlate with reading difficulties and poor attendance patterns in later years. If children don’t show up for school, they miss out on fundamental principles in reading and math.

Brazier says that the organization is shifting its focus to encourage literacy even before the child starts school. “Studies are showing that if kids don't start kindergarten ready to learn,” Brazier says, “the chances that once they are behind, they stay behind. It's really hard for them to get caught up so we're really taking this early literacy and focusing on ages zero to five.” By doing so, he says it's more likely the kids will be reading at grade level.

Anderson, however, said that when the Humboldt County Reading coalition dug deeper about what they actually wanted to focus, they decided they didn't want to single out an age group because literacy is important across all age groups.  According to the NRRF, 70% of prisoners in state and federal systems can be classified as illiterate, and 80% of all juvenile offenders rate as functionally or marginally illiterate. The number of American adults who are functionally illiterate increases by about 2.25 million each year. “Literacy is like the corner stone,” Anderson said.  “If you want a better job, improve your financial  literacy or business literacy; it all comes back to literacy. So if you can improve your reading you can improve your station.”