Heads Up for Literacy; a Unique Educational Program for Teaching Children and Adults to Read and Write Is Getting Good Marks in Tests around the Country

By Miller, Holly G. | The Saturday Evening Post, September 1986 | Go to article overview

Heads Up for Literacy; a Unique Educational Program for Teaching Children and Adults to Read and Write Is Getting Good Marks in Tests around the Country


Miller, Holly G., The Saturday Evening Post


HEADS UP FOR LITERACY

A first grader at Chicago's R.D. Henton Academy recently visited a restaurant with her parents and politely asked for her own menu, please. When dinner arrived, she reminded the waitress that her order included bread. The menu said so.

A thousand miles away, Fahey McCann, a field representative in the national "Heads Up" literacy project, later applauded his former student's reading prowess and her moxie in correcting the menu oversight. "That tells me this little girl can read," McCann says. "She won't be led around by the nose as illiterate people often are. She can make good decisions without merely assuming whatever anyone tells her is the truth."

The Chicago success story doesn't end at the dinner table. McCann proudly reports that first graders at the inner-city academy are now reading articles from the Chicago Tribune and comfortably commenting on President Reagan's dilemma with Khadafy and Mayor Washington's problems with city aldermen. And not just children benefit from the program. "In our Houston adult class we had a man who had completed two traditional programs and still confused words like 'community' and 'commodity,'" says Linda Neithammer, the national director of "Heads Up." "Once he had gone through 'Sing, Spell, Read & Write,' he was able to unlock those differences."

The "Sing, Spell, Read & Write" curriculum, implemented by the "Heads Up" literacy project of the Christian Broadcasting Network, may be nothing new, but it contains a lot of surprises. Developed by Sue Dickson, a former first-grade teacher in Mahwah, New Jersey, it is a total language-arts program, based on the phonics method of teching reading. The program, evolved over several years, blends the sounding out of letters with bingo-like games, a "race track" that charts students' progress, and catchy songs that reinforce learning. Every participant moves at his own pace through 36 steps, and failure is virtually impossible.

The Illiteracy Crisis

The advocates of "Sing, Spell" point to U.S. illiteracy statistics as proof that current approaches to teaching reading aren't working. One study indicates that some 27 million Americans are functionally illiterate--they can't read a newspaper, write a check, or fill our a job application. About three-fourths of the country's jobless population is illiterate, and those nonreaders lucky enough to find work can expect to earn only 58 percent of what literate employees make. Industry spends about $40 million a year on remedial education to upgrade reading and writing skills. Perhaps most frightening, the outlook for the future doesn't appear very bright.

"When the best-selling book Why Johnny Can't Read rolled off the press in the early '50s, illiteracy was exposed for the first time as a national scandal," comments Pat Robertson, president of the Christian Broadcasting Network. "Parents were outraged; educators, embarrassed and indignant. However, after the initial heated dialogue, anger turned to frustration, then resignation. The national debate shifted, and the scandal quietly became a tragedy. Today, almost 35 years later, Johnny still can't read, and neither can 27 million other Americans. And their ranks are swelling by 2.3 million every year."

All the elements were in place for CBN to get involved. Robertson's ministry was committed to reaching the root causes of poverty; CBN's "Heads Up" educational service was ready to implement a learning program; $1 million in funds were available for the kickoff; and the creator of "Sing, Spell, Read & Write" was as close as a quick walk across CBN's sprawling Virginia Beach, Virginia, campus: "Sue Dickson had come to CBN to develop a reading program that would teach children to read on television. The plan had never come to fruition, but Sue was still here," Linda Neithammer explains. "Everything merged so beautifully; it's been extremely effective.

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