Communications & Education
Reading specialists, as well as members of the general public, have long sought to understand why so many children in the United States read below grade level and why so many of its adult citizens are illiterate. While problems associated with reading are not unique to the United States, it is noteworthy that some nations do not experience major problems in this area. In the Republic of Korea, for example, only 8.2 percent of students in primary schools experience difficulty reading texts written at their grade level (National Institute of Educational Evaluation, 2001), and adult literacy is 99.9 percent (Ministry of Education, 2001; UNESCO Statistical Yearbook, 1996).
In contrast to their Korean counterparts, many school-age children in the United States fail to read at their grade level. The 2000 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as "the nation's report card," revealed that more than two thirds (68 percent) of 4th-graders could not read proficiently. The report further indicated that 40 percent of 4th-graders, 30 percent of 8th-graders, and 25 percent of 12th-graders failed to read at the NAEP's basic level. What constitutes a basic reading level is obviously different for 4th-, 8th-, and 12th-grade students; generally speaking, it is a demonstration that the student comprehends what is being read (see Note at the end of the article for NAEP's definition of basic reading level).
Problems with reading in the United States are not confined to school-age children; adult literacy is a major problem as well. Forty-four million of America's 191 million adults are functionally illiterate, classified, as Level 1. Level 1 is the lowest level of adult literacy, ranging from adults who literally cannot read at all to those who can only write their names or locate the expiration date on their driver's license. Level 1 adults cannot fill out an application form for a social security card, fill out a job application, read a newspaper, write a letter, or read the instructions on a bottle of medicine. They cannot function effectively in society to achieve their goals and develop their knowledge and potential (The National Institute for Literacy, 1998). Furthermore, more than 25 percent of adults in America read at or below the 5th-grade level-far below the level needed to earn a living wage (Sum, 1999).
This article reports on the culture of teaching literacy and literacy activities in one nation, Korea, and analyzes why it has been so successful in increasing the nation's literacy. Korea was selected because it has been successful in virtually eradicating illiteracy in a relatively brief period of time-20 years. In 1970, the illiteracy rate was 8.8 percent; in 1980, 7 percent; and in 1990, 0.1 percent (Korean Educational Development Institute, 1990). These data are consistent with those published in UNESCO's Statistical Yearbook (1996) and The World Factbook (2001). The author acknowledges that the United States and Korea have different cultural beliefs and practices that are not easily adapted or changed, but believes that some of Korea's practices in reducing illiteracy can be useful in the United States.
Four parental beliefs regarding children and literacy in Korea most clearly distinguish it from the United States. The first, and perhaps most important, is Korean people's strong belief in academic achievement, considered by most Koreans as the hallmark of success. Persons who hold positions in academic institutions, such as university professors, teachers, and scientists in private and governmental agencies, are revered far more so than in the United States, where there is more of an inclination to admire persons who possess wealth, power, or celebrity status. Because of the deep reverence for academic achievement, Korean parents are willing to make significant personal sacrifices to advance their children's education (Yu, 1988).
The second belief common to many Korean parents is that their preschool children can and should gain significant amounts of knowledge before entering kindergarten at age 5 (Lee, Park, & Kim, 2000). Korean parents believe they have a personal responsibility to help their preschool children become competent readers and writers. They view themselves as their children's primary teachers. So and Kim (2000) report that middle-income Korean families have an average of 160 children's books at home, and that low-income Korean families have nearly the same amount. Sixty-three percent of low-income families and 67 percent of middle-income families read to their children either every day or every other day.
Korean parents also believe they have a responsibility to spend considerable time engaged in formal and quasi-formal academic activities with their preschool children. Since they believe that their children should possess reading and writing skills before entering elementary school, Korean parents make every effort to have their children begin to read and write at a very early age (Lee, 2002).
Finally, Korean parents firmly believe that they have an obligation to provide the financial resources needed to provide their children with books and supplementary educational materials, tuition for schools, tutors, etc. The Seoul Statistical Yearbook (2002) reports that Korean families with an average income of $1,383 to $2,153 spent 20 percent of that income on their children's educational activities, while Korean parents with an average income of $2,153 to $3,692 spent 18 percent. Furthermore, fully 86 percent of kindergarten children in Seoul have attended two educational institutions prior to entering kindergarten (Statistical Yearbook of Seoul Education, 2001). These institutions normally place considerable emphasis on reading and writing.
Korean Culture of Teaching Literacy
First and foremost, Korean parents (especially mothers) spend a great deal of time simply talking with their young children. They engage in a variety of activities to teach their children how to talk, as well as how to read and write. Korean parents involve young children in conversations with siblings, extended family members, visitors, and friends. Mothers talk about the ingredients they are using when cooking, about signs while driving, and generally comment on all everyday activities. Verbal interaction between adults and children is very important to children's learning to read and write (Holdaway, 1979; Teale, 1982). Such oral language experiences stimulate learning to read and write. While parents in the United States talk to their children, it seems less pervasive than the talk that takes place between Korean children and their parents.
Korean parents also engage in many interactive story reading activities; for example, explaining the plot and discussing illustrations in books. Chung and Koo (2001) report that 93 percent of Korean children between the ages of 4 to 6 read books with parents or grandparents. These story reading activities greatly expand children's knowledge. When reading books, children are encouraged to make predictions about content and outcome. In addition to books, Korean parents use comic books, contemporary stories, poetry, and songbooks to help their children use and experiment with words. As parents engage in these story reading activities, children begin attending to the print in books. Some experts believe story reading is crucial to children's literacy, because it instills in them the sense that reading is an enjoyable personal and social language activity (Flowers & Roos, 1994; Galda, Gullinan, & Strickland, 1993).
In addition to oral language activities and story reading, Korean parents use games and various educational activities to enhance their children's academic learning. One such activity is called "Linking the Last Syllable," a word-generating game in which the ending sound of a word becomes the beginning sound of the next word (Lee, Park, & Kim, 2000). For example, when a child says "cat," the next player must say a word that begins with "t," such as "truck." Then the third player must think of a word that begins with the last letter of "truck," such as "kitten" or "kite." This game may be easier for Korean children because of the structure of the Korean language, Hangul, but it can be applied to almost any other language, certainly English.
A second activity used by Korean preschool children is a language worksheet (haksupjee). These worksheets help explain the letter and sound correspondence of the Korean written language. Parents usually receive haksupjees once a week, which are collected and corrected by parents or by paid tutors. While haksupjees are not very effective when used in isolation, they become very useful when used interactively with adults. Haksupjees also contain activities that provide children with drills in copying, tracing letters or words, and using consonant-vowel combining principles (Kim, 1999).