Hilderbrand Pelzer III, a former principal of five education institutions including the Philadelphia Prison System, led a thought-provoking session on the correlation between illiteracy and incarceration at Learning Ally's Spotlight on Early Literacy Conference. In this Q&A, he shares research, observations, and suggestions about how early literacy programs can help at-risk youth make better decisions and choose more productive pasts.
Q: What can we learn from students who go to school inside of a correctional facility?
Hilderbrand: One of my students at the Philadelphia Prison System, Kareem, told me "I want to quit school because I'm 16 years old and still reading on a first-grade level." That statement just speaks volumes about where we are in this nation, the problem we have in our schools and with our children that need to be fixed. Too many children are filling jails and prisons because they are illiterate, or they have not been taught how to read.
Q: What does research tell us about incarcerated youth and literacy?
Hilderbrand: We know that too many children are filling jails and prisons because they are illiterate. I'd like to share with you three historical research studies that highlight the link between reading failure and incarceration:
- Hogenson (1974, p.165) - "Significant research has been conducted that investigates reading failure as the major source of frustration that leads to delinquency."
- Mosse (1982, pp. 284-285) - "The causative chain starts with the fact that the child is not taught reading properly and that his reading disorder is not corrected early enough."
- Huizinga, et al (1991, p.17) - "Prior reading level predicted later subsequent delinquency...[moreover] poor reading achievement increased the chances of serious delinquency persisting over time."
For decades, poor reading instruction has been associated with children going to jail. We know this but there is still no strong solution that has helped us move away from seeing many children grow up illiterate.
Q: Is illiteracy still a problem in prisons today?
Hilderbrand: Yes. 85% of juveniles who interface with the court system are fundamentally illiterate, meaning they read at a third-grade or below level, and 40% of American juvenile offenders who are 15 to 16 years old read below a 4th-grade level. When we look at the total population of prison inmates in the US, 60% are functionally illiterate and 70% cannot read above a 4th-grade level.
Q: Why is it so hard to teach reading?
Hilderbrand: What I saw when I worked as a teacher and as a principal inside of the correctional setting was that my students had difficulty understanding how to use letters and sounds. They had difficulty with the relationships between letters and sounds. They had difficulty reading, understanding the meaning of words, just skipping words, fumbling through words, not understanding syllables. And they just were not able to comprehend anything that they read. Even if they memorized it, they could not tell you what they read.
There are five components of reading: phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension:
- Phonics, putting those letters and sounds together, knowing what "p" or "t" or "s" and other sounds and letters together, blended sounds and letters. This is the type of instruction our children need in the early grades. They cannot get out of kindergarten, first and second grade not having these skills.
- Phonemic awareness is being able to understand how the spoken language and individual sounds connect. When I talk about the children that I've come across who couldn't put letters and sounds together, could not read or write their own names, we're talking about this knowledge that they're missing.
- Fluency is a characteristic of reading. When we assess it, we're seeing about the speed, we're seeing how many words they can read in a minute, accurately. Do they understand when there is a period, or a comma, or an exclamation point is there? How are you training your teachers to teach this? What are some of the look-fors that you have when you go into the classroom to ensure that this type of instruction is happening?
- Vocabulary. We talk about sight words and other ways to get children to understand words, but do they really understand the words that they're reading? Do they understand how to spell those words, and say those letters, and sound off those letters, and have meaning? Because the more vocabulary that they develop, the more they can navigate reading. And so how are we dealing with vocabulary development in our schools?
- Comprehension is the icing on the cake. Being able to understand what you read. Being able to drive down the highway and know what the sign says and what exits to get off. To know when to read the medicine bottle and know that it says to take two in the morning and not two at night. Really understanding and comprehending text, articles, and books, and being able to compare and contrast and understand the main idea. And being able to explain it back in your own opinion and give some thought and reflection to what you read.
These five components of reading must be addressed together systemically and purposefully. "The Five Areas of Reading" is a great YouTube video that really unpacks the five components of reading in a way that is easy for school leaders and teachers to understand. And I would recommend that if you have the chance to share it with your teachers and look at it yourself, please do.
Q: Do you have any final thoughts to share with educators about the importance of early literacy?
Hilderbrand: Dr. Sally Shaywitz, co-director of the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity, and the author of "Overcoming Dyslexia," said in her book, "Once a child begins to read more and more words, accurately and rapidly, he can turn his attention to more complex texts. At this stage, his highest thinking and reasoning skills come into play and, together with his vocabulary and knowledge of the world around him, help him derive meaning from his reading."
What resonates with me is "highest thinking and reasoning skills come into play." When I think about incarcerated youth and the things that they engage in, health-damaging and criminally damaging behaviors that have led them down this path, it is because they fell out of love with school because of reading and they're looking for other things to be successful in.
Where reading could strengthen their thinking and reasoning skills, not having good reading instruction and failing at reading, they do not exercise good thinking and reasoning skills. They make poor decisions. They make and involve themselves in poor activities. Reading can help our children develop these thinking skills, and help them navigate the world around them, stay away from trouble and do more productive things. So think about reading instruction and think about incarcerated youth. And think about how incarcerated youth can inform your early literacy programs.
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