If You Can Read This, Help

Today's children who want to read don't have to go underground and risk brutal punishment, as a slave child and her tutor do in what The New Yorker calls the best American movie of 1996. The story of learning to read becomes "engrossing as a thriller" in "Nightjohn" - dramatizing a basic skill so powerful that slave-owners saw it as a threat.

Now the power of reading is a necessity for all. Point-and-click whisks you around the computerized world but, wherever you arrive, there's something to read. That's one reason, apart from the joy and knowledge locked in books, that President Clinton can hardly go too far in backing "America Reads" literacy legislation. To all the present adult-literacy programs, he would add something more for the children - a million volunteer tutors giving an after-school boost to the dedicated work of classroom teachers.

Some educators argue the money would be better spent on experienced teachers themselves. But Mr. Clinton cited many allies when he promoted the program in his State of the Union address. And the volunteers would be trained by reading specialists.

Training of volunteers is an assumed part of many existing literacy programs. Senior citizens are matched with schoolchildren needing tutoring. Students tutor older illiterates. Volunteers address parental illiteracy, which deprives children of an important stimulus to reading: being read to. Volunteers see how unsuspected abilities emerge through newfound ability to read and write. Among Canada's literacy projects is a collection of testimonies by those whose worlds have changed through understanding the written word.

So "America Reads" has much to build on. Literacy Volunteers of America, for example, with more than 450 affiliates, has added "family literacy" to its programs for adults. Still flourishing is Laubach Literacy, founded in 1955 by Frank C. Laubach, who spread literacy in more than 100 countries. The Clinton volunteers would in a way be following the Laubach doctrine of "each one teach one"; that is, each person who can read must teach another to read - with no slave-owner's whip saying no.

Today's cultural scene underscores another Laubach concern, the "staggering task" of providing enough appropriate literature for more and more literate millions. "Will they read love or hate?" he asked. Since his day much has been printed for people at all stages of literacy. It could stand more love.

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