Even the savviest subway traveler can be overwhelmed by New York City’s maze of underground trains and confusing signs. Imagine what it must be like for someone who can neither read a map, nor read words like local, express, uptown or downtown?
WNYC journalist Beth Fertig begins her book, Why Can’t You Teach Me to 2 Read, with the story of 22-year-old Dominican immigrant named Yamilka, as she tried board the subway in Manhattan to the Bronx, a route she took every day from her tutoring class. But on this day, the train sped passed her usual stop, sending her into anxious confusion. Unable to read the signs, she wandered around lost for six hours, before finally piecing her way home. Yamilka was so shaken up she stayed home the next few days.
Yamilka’s dilemma poses the question at the heart of Fertig’s book: why can’t she read? She graduated from the Bronx High School of Career Development with a special education diploma. She had attended public schools for a decade. And yet, her literacy skills were not even at a basic survival level.
This book grew out of a series Fertig produced for WNYC public radio about the struggles of Yamilka and two other young New Yorkers who managed to get city diplomas without learning how to read. Two have dyslexia: Antonio, 18, and Yamilka’s brother Alejandro, 19. All three filed lawsuits against the Department of Education, winning settlements that eventually paid for special tutoring.
Fertig notes that some educators give up on the most challenging students. Bonnie Brown, a former schoolteacher and principal, said “there are children that will never read and that’s a sad thing to say but that’s a reality.” Brown at one point headed District 75, the city’s collection of 50 schools that cater only to children with special needs, from learning disabilities to severe intellectual deficits such as autism.
Fertig traces the variety of reading methods that have fallen in and out of favor over the years, from phonics (decoding sounds), to whole language (using books and stories), to balanced literacy (more or less a combination of the two). She cites several experts who suggest that the problem lies in the assumption that one method will work for every child, including those with special needs.
In fact, children with special needs tend to be lumped together without regard to their individual disabilities. Yamilka, Fertig concludes, would be able to learn to read in a regular classroom if she had been properly diagnosed early on, so that her lessons geared toward her particular disability.
By the end of the book Yamilka was beginning to get the specific help she needed. Alejandro was taking classes that were preparing him for an alternate high school test. And Antonio was working at United Parcel Service loading boxes, a job he was finally able to land with basic literacy skills.
Theirs are stories of small triumphs. These three benefited from lawyers who eventually helped steer them to help with literacy. But it leaves readers wondering how many more children were lost in the fog of illiteracy?