The Right Words– What Literacy Means (from 2-26-11)

“A person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read.” – Mark Twain

Everyone seems concerned about the literacy skills of our nation’s students. They can’t pass standardized reading tests. This is a problem. So we think the way to get literacy rates up is to “skill and drill” students on discrete reading skills and giving them more tests. If they don’t pass, we put them in “intensive reading classes” with 90 minutes instead of 45 minutes of skill and drilling them on discrete reading skills. These students miss PE or elective classes – year after year. We track data with increasingly expensive and complex data management systems in hopes of getting the scores up. 

I think before we do any more skilling and drilling and data gathering, we gather a different kind of data. We should look at what our successful, high scoring readers have in common: they read a lot. My own children, in grades 7 and 9 last year, made perfect scores on the state Reading test last year. Guess what? They both read. A lot. Practice for the testing merely bores them. And why do they read? Not just because they love it, but because it means something to them.

Here’s a question that I think we should ask every “low level” reader. Can you describe a time you got the right words at the right time from somewhere?  In other words, can you tell me about a time you got advice or a good idea from another person, from a book, a song lyric, a poem, a comic strip, a bumper sticker, a T-shirt, or a movie or TV show? What words help you make sense of life, help you make decisions, guide you along the way?

I got this question from Marlo Thomas’s collection of essays, The Right Words at the Right Time. She posed the question to a variety of famous people – everyone from Whoopi Goldberg to Matt Groening – and got all of them to right essays about their answers. The books makes a fascinating, varied read, and the essays are nearly all examples of vivid, insightful writing. For the past several years, I’ve asked my 7th grade students to read several of the essays and then write their own. Many of my students each year jump into the task with enthusiasm; it’s hard for them to choose which words to choose from the many that have been meaningful to them. Others find it hard to come up with an idea at first, but eventually realize they do have “right words” trotting around in their heads.

But a third group of students, sometimes half a class, cannot think of anything. I will sit with these students one-on-one and say, “Nothing you’ve ever read in a book has meant something to you, has changed your life in any way?”


I continue, “No song lyric, movie line, poem, piece of parental advice, friendly encouragement, religious teaching, bumper sticker or T-shirt wisdom, or movie line has ever made a difference for you?”


“In other words, no words, whether spoken, in print, recorded, videotaped, or filmed or transmitted by mental telepathy have ever meant anything to you?”


“How do you run your life? How do you make decisions? What guides you as you make choices and choose how to act?”

The answer I get? Usually a shrug.

So, while others are mainly worried about whether students can jump through the hoops of a multiple choice test, I worry about the fact that they are not reading because it has never meant anything to them. To be so disconnected from the power of words to transform your life, help you make sense of it, and help you make sense of your self, other people, and the world at large, is to be less than the human being you could be.

You might say that words mean nothing to them because they can’t read. But remember, the advice could have come from any source, printed, oral, or recorded. I would venture to say that the real problem is the reverse: that they can’t read because words mean nothing to them.

Instead of making “reading skills” our focus, perhaps we should start with what really matters: reading as the making of meaning, reading as a personal, passionate experience that can have a real impact on how we live our lives. I am literate not because I once passed standardized tests; I once passed standardized tests because I was literate. And I was literate because books moved me, changed me, and helped me live my life.

The Chronicles of Narnia and the essays written by their author, C.S. Lewis, the psychology of M. Scott Peck, the non-fiction musings of Madeleine L’Engle, the scientific works of Carl Sagan, autobiographical reflections about cartooning written by Charles Schulz and Chuck Jones, the comic strips of Schulz, Bill Watterston, and Gary Larson… These just scratch the surface of the books that have brought meaning,  and purpose, and clarity, and insight to my life.

Because I was immersed in reading, because my reading (and I would add, viewing of movies and cartoons) meant something to me– sometimes meant everything to me– passing a reading test was a no-brainer.

We have reached the point where we view reading for personal pleasure and meaning and engagement as a nice gimmick to raise test scores. What if test scores were merely used as one kind of evidence that students were reading for personal pleasure, meaning, and engagement?

What if low test scores were less of a crisis for us than the fact that so many of our students have never heard or read any words that meant anything to them? Think about that again for a moment. Many of our students have never heard any words that meant anything to them. Never. Words have no impact on their lives. Is it any wonder they can’t read and can’t pass tests?

What if we made linking every student to words that mean something to them our chief priority? What if every student could tell you about a bunch of favorite authors? What if every student could tell you all about his or her favorite book? What if every student couldn’t answer the question, “What were the right words at the right time for you?” not because no words were ever the right words, but because so many words have been so meaningful, it’s too hard to choose.

I shared some of the ideas in this blog post in my acceptance speech for county teacher of the year in 2004.