Literacy: important to learn, difficult to teach |

Literacy: important to learn, difficult to teach

Matt Terrell
Vail CO, Colorado
Daily File PhotoRaquel Ivonne Jacintocastaneda reads Friday at Avon Elementary School. Generally English-language students don't have trouble getting back to speaking English after summer break, but academic reading and writing can suffer, some instructors say.

EAGLE COUNTY ” The importance of literacy can hardly be understated.

Teachers say everything in life, from the basics you learn in grade school, to finding colleges to landing a good paying job can all be traced back to your ability to read words, interpret those words in a meaningful way and communicate with others.

“It will affect their success in all subjects in school, and how successful they are the rest of their lives,” said Heather Eberts, director of elementary education for the Eagle County School District.

The difficult thing is that the fundamentals of reading are possibly the most difficult things in the world to teach, Eberts said.

By the time we’re adults, reading becomes instinctual, and even the best-trained teachers can have a difficult time breaking down what exactly is happening when you read a word. And they have an even more difficult time trying to explain how that process works to a kid.

“It is really hard to pick apart what you’re doing every second as you read ” you’re not in tune with your own brain, how fast your eyes are moving across the page,” Eberts said. “When you are working with children, it’s hard for them to describe what’s happening in their mind, what they are getting and not getting.”

Literacy is the backbone and driving force behind your average teacher, and making sure kids can read and write well drives so much of what happens in the classroom. But the inherent difficulty in teaching reading shows through in national literacy statistics.

While it’s estimated that more than 99 percent of Americans have some minimal reading skills, millions of adults here are functionally illiterate, meaning they can’t read or write well enough to hold down a job, according to the National Center of Education Statistics.

Basic tasks, like signing a form, reading an ingredient list or filling out bank deposit slips are either impossible or just barely manageable by about 15 percent of Americans.

About 24 percent of Americans are a little better off, able to use a television guide to find programs or compare ticket prices for concerts. But more advanced tasks, like summarizing a newspaper article, are too tough.

These kinds of numbers beg the question, how is it in Eagle County?

It’s easiest to track the progress of kids, where data is ready available. This past year, about 66 percent of students grades 3 through 10 in Eagle County School District scored proficient or advanced in the reading section of the Colorado Student Assessment Program, known as CSAP. That means that the other 34 percent of students aren’t reading as well as they need to be.

For those students lagging behind, about 41 percent are on track to someday read at a proficient level. The others, unless big changes are made, won’t likely be reading at grade level by the time they leave high school.

Complicating the scores is the fact that 33 percent of students in the district know little or no English and speak Spanish in their homes, a number that grows every year. Eagle County has the seventh highest percentage of students learning English in the state.

For adults in Eagle County, it’s a more informal guess as to how big or little of a problem literacy is.

The Literacy Project, a nonprofit goupr that offers free tutoring to those needing reading help, has around 400 students at any given time ” most of those adults, says Colleen Gray, director and founder of the Literacy Project.

Most of these students speak another language besides English, but want to learn English to find a better job or help their kids with homework. Many of these students have no more than a second-grade education, while others have earned graduate degrees in foreign countries. Some have reading disabilities like dyslexia.

“We serve a wide range of literacy needs in the valley,” Gray said. “We’re definitely able though to see the impact our volunteers are having. Our students are improving their English.”

Staff Writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 970-748-2955 or

Support Local Journalism