WHY Literacy Matters: When Pictures Aren’t Enough

Recently, a friend of mine told me about an incident with her six-ear-old grandson. He’s a very bright, inquisitive kid who, for some inscrutable reason was very resistant to learning to read, an attitude which puzzled and distressed the adults around him, including my friend.  This had been going on for some time when my friend’s reluctant reader grandson came for an overnight visit. In the morning, she got out her cookbook to look up a recipe for pancakes. He asked her what she was doing, and she explained to him that she needed to read the recipe to get the pancake batter right.

“How do you know what to do without any pictures?” he asked.

It was then that the penny dropped for my friend.  Her grandson was not interested in learning to read because he didn’t understand the point of it.  All of his favorite books were picture books, some of which had no words at all. The manuals for the Lego™ models he loved to build gave instructions in graphics, not writing. His parents were busy people whom he seldom saw reading.  The written word had no relevance for him. Learning to read is hard. Why do it if everything you need to know is available in a never-ending stream of images?

My friend explained to her grandson that reading helps someone understand something even when there aren’t any pictures, or when pictures aren’t enough. He got a thoughtful look on his face as he mulled this over. The next time she talked to his parents, they told her that, for the first time, he was showing real interest in learning to read.  

Chances are there are many children like my friend’s grandson who have no idea why they are being forced to decode random words on flash cards or labor through some boring story about some stupid cat who sat on a mat. Or a rat. Or a hat. Whatever. With no notion of the why of literacy, why would they have any interest in the how, or give mastering reading and writing more than a token effort?

I volunteered in an adult literacy program a few years ago and heard the same story from almost everyone I tutored.  They didn’t learn to read when they were younger, not because they were not smart enough or were lazy, but because they didn’t think it mattered. Then they got out into the real world and discovered that being illiterate was a handicap that affected every area of their lives. So, now here they were at thirty or forty or fifty, playing catch-up.  If only someone had explained to them, early on, that the words are there to help them when pictures aren’t enough.    

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