The International Reading Association is a group that represents teachers of reading across the globe. An old friend, Cathy Roller, recently retired from her career as an IRA big shot at their headquarters in Washington, DC. As a world renowned expert, Dr. Roller traveled around the world advocating for reading teachers, conducting research into why and how people read, and teaching teachers how to teach reading.
I admit to not thinking much about how people learn to read. To me, reading is a natural activity like eating, and cutting the grass: it is just one of the habits people get into. For example, I would no more go a day without reading than I would go a day without eating, or without a weekly session with the lawn mower during the summer.
This is not the case for everyone. My neighbor is able to go months without cutting his grass and I doubt that he's read anything since Al Capp died. Indeed, Cathy tells me that many people do not enjoy reading and that there is a fair percentage of people who simply cannot learn to read no matter how much help they're given and regardless of how much effort they themselves put into learning. This is one of those circumstances of human "wiring" that some folk say does not exist.
One reason some people don't like to read, again according to Cathy, is because they are victims of a teaching theory that can't accommodate their style of learning. Reading was such a chore for them in school that they resist it as soon as they graduate.
There are many theories about how to teach reading but the three main ones are "whole language," which is what old people like me were exposed to, "phonics," which is what most of our kids had and have in school today, and a synthesis or blend of the two which is available to kids who are lucky enough to go to schools that can adapt theory to fit the needs of the student.
I don't know what theory of teaching that the Carroll County Literacy Council uses but I do know that they are going to buy a couple hundred copies of Early Readers from the Berenstain Bears series--thanks to our wonderful Community Foundation--and that these are good books for kids to read.
Why are these good books? One reason is simply anecdotal. Our own kids loved to read them and enjoyed being read to from them. The "Bear" books were building blocks on their road to literacy. Another reason is that each story in the series contains a little moral or civics lesson that helps children engage bigger ideas about how to conduct themselves in their family, school, and community. Finally, these books cost about two bucks each and are within the budgets of most families.
It is a mistake to think that reading and the teaching of reading is simply about preparing people to get jobs. While the ability to read is important in that achievement--and correlates with higher incomes and better jobs--the purpose of that ability is really to create a means to share symbolic information about what is right and wrong with the present so that we can envision a better future.
Thus, one of the main goals of teaching reading and of reading itself is to foster--and to become a member of--a culturally literate society. Here, "culturally literate" is not high faluting code for the common reading of Shakespeare, but rather for taking to heart and sharing as a people the moral and civic lessons taught by the Berenstain Bears, Holy books, and by the authors of poems, novels, essays, and histories who give us examples of how to live decently and with dignity.