Other People’s Words by Victoria Purcell-Gates

August 2, 2010

Summary: Other People’s Words: The Cycle of Low Literacy presents the reader with a case study conducted by author Victoria Purcell-Gates. Purcell-Gates met a woman named Jenny, who was functionally illiterate but desperately wanted to learn how to read so she could help her sons break the cycle of illiteracy. Her oldest son Donny had “passed” first grade despite not being able to read at all, which understandably caused Jenny a great deal of concern. She asked — begged, really — the school district to make Donny repeat first grade, but they refused. So he was promoted to second grade where he of course ended up lagging even farther behind his classmates.

Things started to change when Purcell-Gates provided both Jenny and Donny with some one-on-one tutoring sessions at the local literacy center. Jenny made rather quick progress, and started to learn how to read “environmental print”, which consists of the signs, labels, etc. that we come across in everyday life.

Donny, however, was a tougher nut to crack. Since his father, Big Donny, didn’t see any value in reading, Little Donny didn’t see any either. Reading simply didn’t fit into their Appalachian lifestyle. It was difficult for Purcell-Gates to change Donny’s attitudes about reading; once she succeeded, she started to make a bit of headway with him.

Purcell-Gates also addresses the larger issues of literacy in our public school system. How is it possible that children like Donny continue to slip through the cracks in this day and age? She really took the school district to task — and rightly so — for allowing the boy to move to second grade. She also argues that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the way reading is taught. It’s not fair that children from middle- and upper-class families enter kindergarten having been read to and exposed to reading and print for most of their young lives, while those from a lower socioeconomic status are just beginning to come into contact with print. The children from higher SES groups begin with an advantage, and the gap grows larger with time.

Purcell-Gates posits that instead of starting with the assumption that kindergarten kids already know their ABCs and understand something about the function of print, school systems should start at the beginning for everyone. Moreover, schools need to do a better job of finding books and materials that appeal to all lifestyles, not just the white middle class. And there needs to be specialized instruction in classrooms instead of the “whole class” approach to ensure that every child gets the attention he or she needs.


  • Purcell-Gates did a fantastic job of personalizing the illiteracy issue by introducing us to Jenny and Donny and showing how illiteracy affects so much of their lives. It’s one thing to read endless stats and figures about illiteracy, but quite another to hear about it in regards to a specific family.
  • I think Purcell-Gates makes some interesting proposals regarding the teaching of reading in the early elementary grades. She has a point about low SES students not having the same amount of exposure to reading and print, and argues quite persuasively that this negatively affects their ability to pick up reading as quickly as their middle-class counterparts. In order to close the gap, maybe something really does need to be done about the way reading is approached in kindergarten, first, and second grade.
  • I never thought about the kinds of books typically available to kids in the public schools and how that might affect a specific child’s interest in reading. There could actually be some truth to that. Wouldn’t you rather read a book about something you like than something you’re not familiar with at all?


  • I think Purcell-Gates puts too much blame on the school system alone and not enough on the students and/or parents. While it’s true that the teachers and administrators should have paid far more attention to Donny, it’s also true that Jenny and Big Donny should have made it clear to Donny that he had to try hard, not goof off during lessons, etc. He can’t just sit there like a passive vessel and expect to “acquire” reading skills. He had to be ready and willing to learn.
  • A few of Purcell-Gates’ proposed solutions were impractical because of the sheer cost of putting them into place. While it would be fantastic to have books that interest every single child, how could that plausibly be implemented in a single cash-strapped school, let alone a whole district, city, or state?


Overall, I think Other People’s Words is a very worthwhile read, particularly for educators interested in the problem of illiteracy in the United States. The case study is actually rather engrossing, and you’ll probably end up wondering, as I did, how Donny and Jenny are doing today. I give this book 3 stars out of 5.

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