Cutting Illiteracy: Decodable Books at the Barbershop

So often in the past, I have had parents sit in my reading tuition lessons observe their child, a struggling reader, learn to read. With a structured phonics program and decodable books that support it, the child begins to decode words independently.  At first it is laborious and some children may need a great deal of practice, but then fluency sets in.  The question they all ask is – why wasn’t this happening in school?  Why do they need private tuition lessons to enable their child to access the most basic of entitlements – learning to read?

Change can come from the top but it can also come from the grassroots.  This guest blog is an inspirational example of just that.  Continue reading to see how Faith Borkowsky, set up the Goodfellows barbershop initiative.  

While we wait for schools and teaching colleges to get on board with the “Science of Reading,” community members must support and educate parents about the reading process and early literacy development. Grassroots reading advocates must be enlisted to sound the alarm and give parents necessary information as a preemptive measure. For older children, community guidance and support become even more important. It’s not unusual for kids to receive intervention services at school year after year and become instructional casualties, with few options and dire consequences. Despite a litany of special education services, the gap between readers and non-readers widens when foundational literacy skills are lacking. This is especially so in Black and Latino communities where only a small percentage of schoolchildren meet grade level proficiency.

When I wrote my book series, “If Only I Would Have Known… What I Wish the Pediatrician, Preschool Teacher, and Librarian Would Have Told Me About Language, Literacy, and Dyslexia,” I wanted to convey the importance of having community leaders become literacy lifelines for parents and guardians to ensure children get off to a good start when they begin school. I wanted parents to be able to ask the right questions and recognize when kids are engaging in “pretend reading” and guessing based on pictures and context cues. My hope was that the series would be a tool used for discussion and be made available in pediatricians’ offices, daycare centers, preschools, and libraries. It was not even on my radar to think about how a barbershop could be the headquarters for “cutting illiteracy!”

Pictured: Thad Peay, Troy Swittenburg, Tre Hadrick, Faith Borkowsky, Jacques Golson, Melvin Morris

 

The barbershop as “Literacy Central” was the brainchild of fellow educator and author Tre Hadrick, a former Division 1 football player and local hero in Norristown, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. Tre is the author of a wonderful children’s book called “Cheesesteaks and Clippers,” which highlights the role barbershops play in molding young men in his African American Community. Tre, also known as “Mr. Lit,” is a school guidance counselor, who understands the importance of improving literacy rates in his community. Ironically, he and I met online during the pandemic when Tre and his wife noticed their own child was struggling to learn to read. I tutored their son, Ernesto, and Tre, who sat in on most lessons, was astonished by the rapid results. He knew reading was important, but he, like so many other teachers and educators, did not know how a structured, phonics-based approach can be the single best way to ensure all kids learn to read.

Thirsty for more information on literacy instruction, Tre read “If Only I Would Have Known…” and immediately saw a need for others in his community to read it as well. I encouraged Tre to organize a book club, and I provided discussion questions for him to facilitate conversation. He took the suggestion and ran with it. Tre organized a group of men in his community, all African American and from various disciplines, and they met on Zoom over the course of three weeks to discuss the book. They discussed phonics; they discussed pre-literacy activities parents should know; they discussed their frustration with “sight words” and guessing, as taught in the schools; they discussed decodable books and how to use them; and they discussed their own experiences learning to read. Most importantly, they discussed the social and behavioral issues that result when children are not taught to read. The significance of five African American men meeting to discuss literacy in a book club was not lost on “Mr. Lit” who began calling the group the “Lit Champs!” An educator and university professor in Hungary, Geoff Vaughan, was fascinated with the videos of the Lit Champs and has since joined Tre in promoting awareness and uses the “If Only” series as a road map with his students. The energy is vibrating across the pond!

One of the Lit Champs, Jacques Golson, owner of Goodfellas’ Barbershop in the neighboring town of Bridgeport, PA., not only wanted to learn how to tutor others, but he also wanted to become a driving force for community awareness. Before I knew it, Tre and Jacques were carving out a section of Jacques’ barbershop to be a literacy resource center!! Jacques thought that people would benefit from a better understanding of what a structured literacy approach means. He suggested that in addition to the “If Only” series, displaying a set of decodable books that mirror a phonics progression of skills would provide a quick visual for anyone interested in what they were doing. I reached out to Phonic Books Ltd to see if it would be willing to donate a beginner book series and books illustrating more advanced phonics code to help parents understand the necessity of teaching kids to read words rather than using pictures and context cues. Phonic Books Ltd responded swiftly and sent its “Launchers” that are perfect for beginning readers! It also sent samples from its other series for the advanced levels of phonics appropriate for beginners and struggling readers alike. On February 21, 2022, President’s Day here in the U.S., the Lit Champs and others gathered at the Goodfellas’ Barbershop for a ribbon-cutting ceremony. And, just like that, Goodfellas’ Barbershop distinguished itself as the first “Decodable Book Bar” and Literacy Information Center in a grassroots community retail establishment! The first, we hope, of many more to come.

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Faith Borkowsky is the founder of High Five Literacy and Academic Coaching and is a Certified Dyslexia Practitioner with thirty-five years of experience in literacy instruction – as a classroom teacher, reading and learning specialist, regional literacy coach, administrator, and tutor. Ms. Borkowsky provides professional development for teachers and school districts, as well as parent workshops, presentations, and private consultations on science-based literacy practices. She is the author of the award-winning book, Failing Students or Failing Schools? A Parent’s Guide to Reading Instruction and Intervention, and the “If Only I Would Have Known…” series of books, conceived as a roadmap for literacy readiness and success for parents of young children. In 2021, Ms. Borkowsky was a finalist for the World Literacy Foundation award for her significant contributions to literacy.

Read more about this initiative here: https://www.timesherald.com/2022/02/24/cutting-illiteracy-grassroots-effort-kicks-off-to-promote-education-literacy/ 

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