The ability to read has always been a valued skill in this country. The position of the United States as a world leader and a democracy requires that the bulk of its citizens be literate. In fact, America's literacy rate is one of the highest in the world and has been for some time. However, new studies have shown that the basic ability to read is no longer enough. For the best chance of success, students must be able to read well by the end of the third grade. Those who were not good readers by this time showed a greater tendency toward dropping out of school or participating in delinquent behavior.
Recent surveys have disclosed that 40 percent of America's fourth graders do not meet basic reading levels. The National Assessment of Educational Progress found that 70 percent of fourth graders did not meet the proficiency level of reading. In response, President Clinton and the Department of Education have put together the America Reads Challenge. The purpose of this program is to ensure that by the end of third grade, every child in the U.S. has mastered essential and basic reading skills. The goal is not to radically change the way children learn. Instead, it hopes to enable the expansion of existing, successful literacy efforts to reach more childen in need of help.
The undertaking is too large for the Department of Education to handle alone. As a result, the President is calling upon all Americans to take part. In addition to teachers, librarians and reading specialists, Clinton hopes that one million people will volunteer as tutors to assist parents and professionals in the task. Concerned citizens, many seniors and members of community organizations are expected to volunteer. College students, under an expanded Federal Work Study program, will round out the ranks of the volunteeer army.
Funding for this program is expected to come from the America Reads Challenge Act of 1997. A bill, waiting to be brought before Congress, would allocate $2.7 billion over five years to the effort. $210 million was reserved for 1998, but because the bill was not passed by July 1, this money will roll over to the IDA to be dolled out in the form of state grants. For it to go toward the Challenge, the money must be fought for in appropriations. Due to strong support from the President and a number of Senators, it does not appear that the program will go unfunded.
Upon passing the bill, $1.5 billion of the total will go toward the training and supervision of tutors by reading specialists for after-school, weekend, and summer reading programs. $1 billion will be earmarked for the Corporation for National Service to recruit and organize tutors. $300 million will be passed out as grants for the Parents as Teachers First program. The money will be distributed by the Department of Education and the Corporation for National and Community service in amounts proportionate to what states already receive under Part A of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (a program dedicated to improve reading instruction for children in low-income schools and neighborhoods). The remainder of funds will be distributed on the basis of applications turned in by individual states. A state must demonstrate that it has already mobilized a sizable base of local and state organizations that are dedicated to helping children read well and independently.
Because states must set up programs before they receive money, there are many ways to get involved immediately. Call a local school or literacy center, which are always looking for volunteers and will likely become involved with the Challenge when it kicks into full gear. You can also contact the Department of Education at 1-800-USA-LEARN. The department can tell you about the initiative, or send information about how to get involved in READ*WRITE*NOW, a summer reading program that encourages kids to spend 30 minutes a day reading and to learn a new vocabulary word each day. You may also try contacting the Financial Aid Offices of a nearby college or university. Many of them have already pledged their participation. Finally, the America Reads Challenge recommends that parents instill a love of reading in their children. They offer the following tips to support that goal:
Read to and with your children every day for 30 minutes.
Talk with infants and young children to develop their language skills before they learn to read.
Encourage children to read on their own, outside of school, to enhance their in-school performance.
Set a good example for your children by reading newspapers, magazines and books.
Read and write with your children in your native language.
Make sure your child has a library card and uses it.
For further information on how to get involved with the America Reads Challenge, check out the official Web site at http://www.ed.gov/inits/americareads. The Read*Write*Now summer program also has a site filled with activities and ideas on how to help your child become a strong, independent reader.