Our Kids Are in the Midst of a National Literacy Crisis—Here's What They Need

Actor, advocate, and former 'Reading Rainbow' host LeVar Burton says National Reading Month is the perfect time to address the massive decline in literacy our kids are experiencing.

An illustration of actor, advocate, and former 'Reading Rainbow' host Levar Burton

Eliana Rodgers for Kindred by Parents

We are in the midst of a literacy crisis. Our kids are struggling—experiencing the largest decline in reading scores in 30 years. How we respond will determine the success of our nation’s children, and the future of this country. We must engage in a national conversation about how we teach our children to read. Because the truth of the matter is, we are failing them.

I firmly believe that it is our fundamental right to be literate in at least one language. If you cannot read, you cannot access your full potential in life. This letter is my call to action to parents across the country: We must unite in our shared responsibility to help kids learn how to read and inspire a lifelong love of reading. 

It was my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Twiggs, who was the first person—outside of my family—to see me as a “reader.”  On certain rainy afternoons, she would put me in front of the class and have me read while she went to the teacher’s lounge to make herself a cup of tea. I was the strongest reader in my class and Mrs. Twiggs recognized this in me. But my love of stories began well before fourth grade.  My mother was an English teacher, and so, in Erma Gene's house, reading was not optional. Under her roof, you were either going to read a book or you were going to get hit in the head with one. The choice was ours, but rest assured, we were going to have an interaction with the written word. 

Erma Gene was an avid, voracious reader. She not only read to us—to my two sisters and me—she read in front of us. And it wasn't just her love of literature that was modeled; it was her value system that was also taught and communicated to us growing up. I was fortunate to have my love of reading fostered at home and in the classroom. I was set up for success. 

As National Reading Month comes to a close, I want to make it our highest priority to help the next generation of children succeed as well. We need to continue to focus on our children’s reading journeys by understanding how they’re being taught to read in the classroom, and how we can help them at home.  The reading wars, as they’ve been called, have left our children to fend for themselves.  The whole language or balanced approach often leads kids to rely on memorization, and pictures, rather than focusing on phonics. On the other hand, the Science of Reading—which utilizes phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension—has not only proven to be successful but is grounded in the very building blocks of reading. 

Never before have we had the myriad of resources at our disposal that we do now—new tools that combine technology and phonics to help children learn to read. Osmo’s Reading Adventure program uses voice recognition and AI to teach kids to read and provides them with real-time feedback about their reading. 

As someone who has made education and literacy a priority both on- and off-screen, I am honored to continue this mission. I’m thrilled at the new programs available today that get our kids excited and immersed in reading. But every child’s literacy journey should begin at home.  I encourage you to sit down with your child and read together. Make reading at home a healthy habit!  Let your kids see you reading and allow them to feed their reading appetites by choosing subjects that interest them. If your child likes superheroes, buy them comic books! I don’t care what they’re reading, so long as they are reading! 

I hope my words inspire you to take an active role in your child’s reading adventure. Because remember, change has to begin with each of us. Our children’s futures are on the line. 

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