Teaching children to read must take priority

Anyone who has ever taught a child to read can testify to the joyous satisfaction flowing from the experience.

Invariably, getting the child to recognise the sound of individual letters in the alphabet, then grouping those sounds to form a word, prove central to the process.

It requires great patience, commitment, empathy, and a love for imparting knowledge.

Yet, if the child is intellectually able — not burdened with a learning disability — the process can happen very quickly.

We daresay, those few educators who can actually remember being illiterate are perhaps best equipped as reading specialists.

The sad truth is that in many Jamaican high schools there are children — often in great numbers — who can't read or do so way below their grade level.

The problems are immense as principal of Denham Town High Mr Donovan Hunter told us in a feature published Sunday.

Said Mr Hunter: "We test all grade seven to nine students and then we group them and place them in classes based on their learning profile; and we find that 97 per cent of the students or intake is reading below grade level…"

Poor socio-economic circumstances, which mean parents and guardians — some themselves illiterate — are often ill-equipped to help their children, and chronic gang-related hostilities in places like West Kingston, make the situation much worse.

Recognising that learning in school hinges on the ability to read, that behaviour and self-esteem are closely connected to literacy, educators at Denham Town High — true to their calling — are pushing the boundaries to help their children.

We are told that, in order to fund parallel reading courses within the high school, teachers have "been on the road [successfully] seeking sponsorship".

Mr Hunter tells us that "Students can't learn on empty stomach… If they are not fed, they're not going to sit down comfortably to learn anything and to be engaged, so companies have come on board... [A]nd I thank God for what they are putting in..."

We hear of testimonials from parents and students about the reading programme at Denham Town High. Also, students "are more focused. They will sit down and do the work. They are not idle again and all over the place".

We applaud Denham Town High and other high schools going out of their way to help children become literate.

But the question must be asked: What is the Ministry of Education doing to eliminate this horrendous problem of illiterate children entering high school?

What's happening at Denham Town High and other similarly under-resourced high schools across the country should have happened years ago when those children were at basic and primary levels.

We recall the Alternative Secondary Transitional Education Programme (ASTEP) of some years back which sought to have children achieve literacy before entering high school.

That programme failed for reasons we do not pretend to fully understand.

What we do know is that, for children to get an education they must learn to read, first and foremost. Without that 'their corner dark', and the negatives in terms of crime, antisocial behaviour, and poverty will naturally flow.

What's needed — clearly lacking currently — is for our leaders to find the will, drive, and creativity to solve the problem.

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