The literacy edge

Celebratory days and weeks abound in this country, with some of them initiated and supported by corporate interests. Hallmark works hard to sell greeting cards for something such as "Grandparents' Day."

Colorado Literacy Week is different. Literacy goes to the core of what springboards an individual into having a full, rewarding life, and it is what makes a state forward-looking and economically strong. Literacy in life is not required, but having it is much more likely to make life more interesting and full, not to mention financially successful.

This year, Colorado Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia wants to get copies of the same book, Duck on a Bike, into the hands of all of the state's 4-year-olds - some 70,000 of them. Local libraries are participating in the effort to distribute the books, in either English or Spanish, free as part of the One Book 4 Colorado effort. The project is funded by private sponsors.

An emphasis on improving literacy is often aimed at the young, and this week is no different. Look for school, learning center and public library programs that encourage reading. Expect well-known figures in the community to be role models, reading out loud to youngsters. And for library and bookstore displays to be directed at early readers, those aged 4, 5 and 6.

A quarter of the children in Colorado who begin their schooling at the kindergarten level, or at first grade, are not ready to read. They do not fully recognize the alphabet, nor do they have sufficient vocabularies. Their parents, for the most part, have not made the necessary effort to give them the breadth and mix of words that allows them to understand what they are reading, nor to express themselves. They are stepping onto a moving walkway, unprepared.

Educators say that can easily be different. Half an hour of reading an evening with a parent makes a huge impact. So, too, does having parents who make a point of using a broad and diverse vocabulary with their children. Learning is a matter of speaking and reading precisely, and that requires the necessary vocabulary.

Do teachers bring young students along in their reading, in the classroom? Certainly, and they have an advantage in that they have been trained in effective teaching techniques. But the student who arrives prepared - familiar with books and equipped with a love of words and ideas - is going to immediately find classroom instruction easier to grasp, and then to soar.

We know that if a student is not reading at grade level at the end of third grade, he is almost certain to have trouble learning in subsequent grades. Between kindergarten and fourth grade is not much time.

As for adults, there is still work to be done. The prison population suffers from low literacy levels. We suspect the number of Coloradans who cannot read at all are very few in number. But the workplace today and perhaps society in general requires a higher level of literacy than it did five decades ago. The world is more complex. To perform effectively at a societal level today, texting and tweeting aside, requires greater literacy than it did not too long ago. Earning a degree in a profession from a community college requires good communication skills.

Encouraging youngsters to read should be a 52-week effort, and to varying degrees it is. But this week let's be even more aggressive in working to help improve the state's literacy rate for children, and for those of all ages.

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