John Corcoran knows the devastating effects of illiteracy firsthand. After graduating high school and college, he became a teacher--all the while hiding a burdensome secret. John Corcoran was illiterate!
After learning to read at age 48, Corcoran became an aggressive and outspoken advocate of literacy, sharing his story in a shocking and compelling autobiography, The
Teacher Who Couldn't Read. Now, in a new book, he uncovers the crisis of illiteracy in America. In The
Bridge to Literacy: No Child--or Adult--Left Behind, Corcoran assesses the causes and consequences of illiteracy and offers solutions to address illiteracy at every level of society.
Corcoran readily admits that the issue of illiteracy is a highly politicized one, and it is likely that homeschoolers will disagree with some of the author's basic assumptions. However, whatever we may feel about the role of government in education, Corcoran does offer an interesting and unique perspective: as both a victim of the system (as an illiterate student) and a member of that same educational system (as a teacher).
According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, between 40 and 44 million Americans function at or below the lowest literacy level, and nearly 30 million adults are categorized as non-literate. Corcoran attempts to put a face on these staggering statistics, sharing the stories of students and adults and families that have suffered from illiteracy.
Then he offers balanced solutions, wisely pointing out that enforcing high standards in school without offering fruitful instruction will only result in an increased dropout rate. Corcoran advocates abolishing the practice of social promotion, but he argues that repeating another year of the same ineffective teaching will not produce literate students. The instruction itself must change. And Corcoran believes that the most fundamental change must take place in the training of teachers. "The reason that children don't know how to read is because teachers don't know how to teach them" (177).
The most compelling part of the book for homeschoolers will likely be Chapter 8, "Teaching our Teachers." Here Corcoran argues that reading instruction must abandon whole language techniques and embrace direct, systematic instruction in phonics. The five components of effective reading instruction as identified by the National Reading Panel are phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. And Corcoran points out "that a systematic phonetic approach--as opposed to a whole language approach--can teach all but 3 to 5% of the population in the first few grades of school" (192).
Although I found the book a bit repetitive in places, I enjoyed it on the whole. Much of his insights rang true with my own experience as an inner-city tutor. And as a mother of a preschooler, I was confirmed in my decision to use a phonics program to teach my daughter to read.