Books: Beth Fertig’s Why Cant U Teach Me 2 Read?

Three students and a mayor put American schools to the test.

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Yamilka, Alejandro, and Antonio are old enough to vote, but they can’t read. In Why Cant U Teach Me 2 Read?, Beth Fertig profiles these three young New Yorkers as they enter the world without basic literacy, following them for two years as they sue the city for extra help, get private tutoring, and make first-ever bookstore purchases.

So who is to blame for letting them fall through this massive educational crack? That’s not an easy question. To start with, Fertig’s subjects are among the fewer than 5 percent of kids with “hard-wiring problems” that make it extremely difficult to learn how to read (as opposed to the 20 to 25 percent of kids with “garden variety” reading problems). Fertig smartly pulls together shelves of research and animates data and theory with lively classroom scenes and interviews. She walks us through the “reading wars” between competing literacy pedagogies, but unfortunately none has a good solution for learners like Yamilka, who can’t hear that “book” and “cook” rhyme.

Are digital technologies to blame? Nope. In spite of the book’s title, text messaging actually helps Antonio with reading and writing. Other tempting culprits: Mayor Bloomberg and the technocrats who engineered the city’s recent educational overhaul, as well as No Child Left Behind and the never-ending assessments that are used “in lieu of curriculum and teaching,” as one school official grouses. But Antonio and Yamilka often blow off their tutoring sessions, and their brains stubbornly refuse to create the neural pathways necessary for fluent reading. By the end, it’s unclear whether we should celebrate or cry: After 1,500 hours of tutoring, for which the city paid $120,000, 25-year-old Yamilka can finally read compound words like “boyfriend.”

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We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

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