When thinking about teaching someone to read, we invariably think about a child of about 6. When we hear about illiteracy, our minds immediately goes to a middle-aged person in some third-world country who did not have the time or resources to learn to read because they had to take up guns and fight a civil war. But this is not the biggest problem in literacy anymore. Illiteracy has become a problem in many first-world and developing countries. According to reports the number of teenagers unable to read at a functional level, are staggering.
What are the reasons for this? Why, in a modern, developed world where reading is a skill we readily accept everyone has, are there so many who cannot read?
It is a vicious cycle. Poverty is one of the reasons people never learn to read properly. Without that proper education, one cannot find a good job, leading to having to accept a menial salary or even long periods of unemployment. Children born in such circumstances have an even more difficult time to learn how to read than others.
One of the things you always hear when you are a teacher, is that you cannot teach a hungry child. When a child is not properly fed, his brain chemicals start changing. This causes the brain to focus only on survival and all energy go to the vital organs to sustain life. It leaves the reasoning and learning part of the brain depleted so even though the child is trying his best, he is just not able to concentrate on what the teacher is trying to teach him.
Another reason is the over-population of classrooms and teachers being pressured by authorities to stick to a certain program. Children are supposed to be sufficiently literate by the time they reach the end of grade 3. Teachers have big classes and a program to follow. In some places it is now popular practice to have a teacher's salary determined by his/her performance in class. So if there are a few children in class who, for whatever reason, cannot keep up with the prescribed program, they easily fall by the wayside.
After grade 3 it is not part of any syllabus to teach basic literacy. Laws on promoting students to the next level differ between different countries, states and schools. But at some stage the child will get stuck in a grade. When this happens it is easy for the child to become despondent. A child like this will easily leave school without any further education. He has now fallen through the cracks in the system and there is no more help for him in the mainstream schooling system.
There are many reasons why children beyond grade 3 cannot read. And probably it is not my fault or yours. But if we leave this to world leaders and government to solve, no help will be coming for this generation. It is up to each and every one of us to teach someone to read.