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‘I’m a father, and I want to read to my children, but I can’t read’ — Ruth Colvin Memo Reflects on Fathers and Literacy

June 18, 2023

Last summer at ProLiteracy, we were preparing to move to a new office in Syracuse, NY. As we began going through all the files, supplies, and rooms of our old building to pack up and move, we came across box upon box of documents, books, and artifacts related to our founders Dr. Frank Laubach and Ruth J. Colvin that tell the story of their work in adult literacy.

It was impossible not to get lost sifting through these boxes of history. Ruth especially had kept journals and copies of all the correspondence she had related to Literacy Volunteers of America. In them, so many stories of people she encountered are told, from world dignitaries to a library custodian.

In a memo to a woman named Judy—year unknown, though it was written on a typewriter—Ruth shares a story from when she was researching small group tutoring with a focus on reading to children. Today, on Father’s Day, that story is reprinted below as a reminder of the important role literacy plays in the relationship between fathers and their children. 

As I talked with kindergarten and first grade teachers at a local school, explaining what I was trying to do, they sensed my sensitivity to the feelings of adults admitting this lack of reading ability. And they knew who, among their parents, were interested in their children’s schoolwork and activities. They also knew which parents had limited reading and writing skills. Often permission slips for field trips were not returned—later the parent admitted that she lost it, and one even admitted that she couldn’t read it. Some parents never wrote notes but came always in person to explain absences. The teachers gave me several names and telephone numbers, cautioning me to be gentle as I offered this special opportunity to learn to improve their reading and writing by learning techniques for reading to their children. 

I got several enthusiastic responses and set up my group meetings for Monday and Thursday mornings. However, a man answered one call. When I asked for his wife, he asked me why I wanted to talk with her. I explained that I was going to have a special project, accepting only four or five mothers who were interested in learning to read better to their children. The teacher at the school had told me that his wife was one of the parents who seemed most interested in helping her youngster. 

The man was quick to respond. “Why do you only want mothers? And why do you only have this training in the mornings? I’m a father, and I want to read to my children, but I can’t read. I work and can’t come in the morning.” 

This caught me by surprise. Of course, he was right, and I immediately told him so. I said that if I could get even one more father, I’d set up a training in the evenings. I did get another father, and this small group of only three of us had a wonderful time, sharing and learning. The courageous father who challenged me was the custodian at the school library, seeing books every day, knowing he could never read them to his children. That gave us the idea of using a father reading to his child as the introduction of LVA’s video training, “Read with Children.”  

Happy Father’s Day to all the dads who are building better lives for their children through improved literacy.