by Donald Daniel, 2014, revised July 2021

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Someone said that there is a very serious problem of illiteracy in America's prison population. I do not know to what extent this is true, but I suspect literacy is an important factor. I do not think this is because they were too stupid to learn to read. I suspect it is because they were mostly unwanted children of unwed mothers.

Too many people think that if they have no problem reading a street sign, they have all the literacy they need. I suspect that for many of these people reading is so difficult that they would never read a book. But if you are going to advance yourself by acquiring a new skill, the lowest cost way to do this is by reading a book on the skill you wish to acquire.

A possible solution to the problem for future generations occurs to me. Suppose that for one class period each day, children in first, or second grade were moved to a large classroom with cubicals large enough to hold two students. On one day one of the students would read a children's novel out loud to the other student. The next day the other child would read. If children read eight novels this way before they reached the fourth grade, I think the literacy problem would be solved. And hopefully the prison population will eventually decline as a result.

Reading novels for fun is probably the best way for elementary school children to become literate. But the novels must be fun to read. When I was in the third grade, I was enthralled with a series of novels about characters who were the animals living on a farm. The leading character was Freddie the pig. I suspect that most third graders would enjoy reading these novels if they were exposed to them. If I had not come upon these novels at an early age, I might never have become a good reader. I might have been a janitor instead of an electronic engineer. Fortunately these novels are still in print. Every parent with a third grader should get them.

After I finished all of the "freddie the pig" novels, I read the "henry ware" novels about a frontiersman. After that I read the "howard pease" novels about the second in command on a tramp steamship. From the 7th grade until I finished the 12th grade, I read many science fiction, not fantasy, novels. Some authors I remember are Eric Frank Russel, Isaac Asimov, Andre Norton and Robert Heinein. For a while in high school, I read a different novel from cover to cover every day. I had it hidden behind the textbook so the teacher could not see it. When I was home in my room supposedly doing homework, I finished the novel. I barely graduated from high school as a result, but I have no regrets.

In retrospect I wonder if I was raised to maturity more by the novels I read than by my parents and teachers.

I stopped reading novels when I started to college. But as a result of all the reading I had done, it was easier for me to learn the class subject matter from reading the text than from listening to the lecture. Reading science fiction stimulated my imagination so that later when I went to college I majored in physics, and read books on electronic engineering. How many young people sell themselves short because their imagination was never stimulated.

Beyond reading stories for entertainment, children should be given practice reading and following instructions. Optically read test sheets where each question is answered by using a number 2 pencil to mark one of 5 boxes would be ideal for this. Each student in the class would be given a different set of instructions so it would not help to copy another student's work. Randomized computer generated instructions could accomplish this. The student would first mark the answer sheet with the number that identified his instruction sheet. Each instruction would say, for instance "for answer 17 mark number 3". The instructions could get more convoluted toward the end. Saying that someone is a kinesthetic learner is a polite, euphemistic, politically correct way of saying that the person is a functional illiterate. Considerable practice at reading and following instructions should greatly reduce the fraction of the population that are kinesthetic learners.

Ultimately training in literacy should be focused on reading to learn how to do new things. If you want to learn how to do something, and you cannot learn how to do it by reading how to do it, you are a functional illiterate. That should be the standard for the future. It was not needed in the past, because in the past it was practical to show workers how to do their jobs. There are more different kinds of jobs, and jobs keep changing, so the old ways are not adequate for future workers.

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