A Look at Literacy in California

California public schools have about 1.4 million ELL students.

Literacy, by definition, is simply “the ability to read and write.” However, being literate in English is far from simple. The complex nature of the English language requires attention to multiple rules of spelling, grammar and pronunciation, as well as multiple exceptions to those rules.

Unfortunately, nationwide literacy rates are disappointing, as many students do not meet state and national reading level expectations. California is no exception. According to 24/7WallSt.com, in 2014, 73 percent of fourth graders in California were not reading at the “proficiency” level. In fact, there are only four states with higher percentages.

The barriers created by language differences and economic disparity negatively impact literacy development all over the country. However, at the state and local levels, California is working to overcome these barriers with initiatives to bridge the literacy gap.

Language Barriers

One of the primary reasons that California’s illiteracy rates are so high is the number of its foreign-born residents and the number of students for whom English is a second language. No state has more residents born outside the United States than California. According to KidsData.org, in the 2012-13 school year, 43 percent of California students spoke a language other than English at home. These children face an uphill battle as they try to learn English and other subjects at the same time. In addition, students from these homes cannot benefit from adult assistance with homework. Parents in these homes cannot read aloud to children in English, a practice that has been proven to promote reading success.

The language barrier is not a small issue. According to KidsData.org, only 11 percent of California’s English learners (ELs) met or exceeded expectations in reading in 2015, compared to 51 percent of students who speak fluent English.

Economic Barriers

Poverty has a negative effect on literacy development in children.

Unfortunately, being an English learner may be only one obstacle to literacy development in California. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, “[ELs] … poverty rates range from 74 to 85 percent, much higher than the 21 percent overall poverty rate for California school-aged children.”

Studies have proven that children who live in poverty are more likely to struggle at school. The literacy rates for children of economically challenged families are consistently lower than those whose families can more easily provide the basic necessities of life. In California, half of the students qualified for the free lunch program based simply on family income and financial stability. An additional 5.8 percent of students were eligible for a reduced-price lunch using the same criteria.

Studies show that children who are born into poverty tend to have health problems that can persist throughout their educational years. Lack of financial resources leads to a lack of regular health care, and children who miss school because of illness fall behind very quickly.

Literacy Initiatives and Programs

The California Department of Education (CDE) reported that in the 2014-15 school year, approximately 1.392 million California public school students were English learners. Because of this, the CDE provides English language development in three different settings. In a Structured English Immersion classroom, ELs learn English, using a curriculum designed specifically for them. The English Language Mainstream classroom uses only English, but EL students receive additional services as needed. In an Alternative Classroom, students learn core subjects in their native languages. They also receive direct English language instruction. These classrooms build English literacy skills so that students become more successful in reading and writing which, in turn, leads to more success in other academic areas.

In addition to the free and reduced-price meal program for children living in poverty, the CDE has initiated Team California for Healthy Kids (TCHK). This program promotes healthy eating and regular activity for all California students. According to TCHK, “[h]ealth disparities contribute to the achievement gap.” By providing access to good nutrition and physical activity, this initiative hopes to close that gap and raise California’s literacy rates.

During the summer months when students are not engaged at school, many students already at risk for grade-level literacy development fall further behind. Students, especially those from low-income families, need programs like Summer Matters, developed by the CDE. In this program, “[f]ield trips, projects, and camp-like activities provide meaningful and engaging learning experiences.” The California Library Association (CLA) has also joined in with their Summer Reading Challenge. The CLA provides resources and data collecting programs to local libraries, which “help children and teens retain and enhance their reading skills during the summer. They help adults model reading activity for youth. And they provide a haven and a community for readers.”

No Easy Solution

None of the initiatives developed in California will fix the lagging literacy rates quickly or completely. Diversity in language and generational poverty are complex issues with long-lasting effects. However, local and state government, local schools, and libraries are working together to find effective ways of reaching at-risk students. By providing healthy choices in nutrition and physical activity, as well as year-round academic programs, they are increasing the chances that many more students will finish high-school. When this happens, higher-paying jobs and further education become a real possibility.

Learn more about the CSUSM online Master of Arts in Education with a Focus on Literacy program.


24/7 Wall St.: States Where Children Are Struggling the Most to Read

Visalia Times-Delta: County faces illiteracy rates higher than the state average

California Summer Reading Challenge: Outcome- and Outreach-Based Summer Reading


Public Policy Institute of California: California’s English Learner Students

Summer Matters

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