Jenn Smith | Recess: Wash your hands, then read.

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There are so many teachable moments up for grabs right now, but for families who are home together here's one of the most important lessons: read.

Teaching about hand-washing and empathy and sure, even social distancing, is certainly important too. But reading is fundamental, as they say.

It's a vehicle into worlds unknown, described through poetry, prose and persuasion.

It's also the gateway to absorbing critical knowledge, to understanding what's on the ballot, to noticing the fine print.

And lest we forget, numerical and financial literacy is just as valuable as language literacy. I'd argue that media literacy, cultural literacy, digital literacy and other genres matter just as much.

Here's the thing: Our communities are lacking these essential skills putting them at risk for helping themselves and others in the future.

Back in 2012, "Pittsfield Promise," a coalition of more than 80 community leaders launched the exceptionally ambitious goal of having 90 percent of all third graders in Pittsfield reading at grade level by the year 2020. That's now.

Statistics from Strategies for Children's Early Education for All campaign at the time found that only 61 percent of third graders in the state and 51 percent in Pittsfield were scoring at a level of proficient or above on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System's third grade reading exam. Third grade is considered by education experts to be the key transition point where children must not just be learning to read, but reading to learn.

Today, that goal has flatlined not only for Pittsfield but for most of the county and the country as well.

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Spring 2019 MCAS scores for the city reveal that exactly half of last year's third graders were meeting or exceeding English language arts expectations and only 34 percent were meeting or exceeding learning expectations in math. The statewide averages are not much better, with 56 percent of third graders meeting or exceeding English language arts expectations and 49 percent meeting or exceeding learning goals in math.

Even in districts that have smaller and higher scoring populations, like Lenox, third graders also show signs of struggle. Fifty-nine percent of last year's third graders in Lenox were meeting or exceeding expectations in English language arts, and 52 percent were meeting goals in math.

And kids aren't the only ones who need to boost their literacy skills. Adults do, too.

In the early 2000s, a Massachusetts State Assessment of Adult Literacy found 32 percent of adults were at basic or below basic skill levels for searching, comprehending and using information from newspapers and instructional materials. More than half of adults in this category weren't working. Among the 667,000 workers who do have a high-school credential still lacked basic math, literacy, language and analytic skills to perform in the typical workplace, according to a Mass Inc. report, "New Skills for a New Economy."

But there's always room to learn and grow, and experts say having a supportive, fun and encouraging environment can go a long way in fostering a lifelong love of literacy.

So when you're home with your family this week, perhaps home-schooling due to school closures or home because a lack of work or social plans, make time to read together. And please, do yourselves a favor and read beyond the memes on your screens.

Read recipes and factor ratios of sugar and flour together. Recap what you're reading over dinner. Plot out a garden, a budget or a new running route. Start a virtual book club or story time. Track your own reading hours and keep a friendly competition among household members. Fact check the data you receive through the news, and form questions you can research together. Read, read, read, then share what you've learned.

The statistics are only a snapshot of what was. You still have the power to turn the page.

Jenn Smith can be reached at, at @JennSmith_Ink on Twitter and 413-496-6239.


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