Before students grow up and have the opportunity to choose what classes to take in college, reading is a subject all children are taught — though not always effectively — and that educational pillar was the point of emphasis of renowned sociologist Bill Labov at Thursday’s lecture in the Toyota Auditorium of the Baker Center.

Labov, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, discussed his efforts and programs geared towards improving reading skills among students in inner city schools of Philadelphia. The event was free and open to the public, and the room was filled with those eager to hear Labov speak.

The lecture began with Labov addressing the magnitude of facing the issue of low reading efficiency in our nation’s education system.

“It is the most serious social issue in the United States at this time, and is the cause of so many other issues that people talk about,” Labov said.

He spoke primarily of the “Penn Reading Initiative” program, which was developed by the UPenn Linguistics Laboratory as a new approach to teaching children to read.

A student-led tutoring initiative, the aim of the program is to improve the reading skills of children in lower-income, inner city schools in west Philadelphia and more specifically, reduce the disparity between minority students and Caucasian students in regards to reading ability.

Labov attributed the disparity to many causes, including inadequate methods, lack of resources and little family support.

“Poverty is the fundamental cause of the situation,” Labov concluded. “There is no doubt about that.”

Labov claimed that failure to read effectively creates a cycle of incarceration and unemployment that still exists.

The professor also discussed his “Reading Road” program, which by applying various linguistic techniques has shown positive results. One low-income school in which the program was enacted saw a 50 percent increase in proficient readers in the third grade from 2003 to 2006.

This approach to teaching reading skills involves the use of individualized programs, stories that the children read, games and chapters that emphasize a certain tricky linguistic aspect, such as constant clusters. Labov stated that the main goal of the program is to promote the love of reading.

“Reading is essential to entering the educational system, so they do not become part of the cycle,” he said.

Trevor Slagle, junior in English currently enrolled in a first-year linguistics course, left the lecture with an impression about the importance of the issue.

“Before, I would have said it wasn’t one of the most important issues,” Slagle said, “but now I think it could be one of the more pressing educational issues today.”

The event was sponsored by the UT College of Education, Health, and Human Services, as well as the University-Assisted Community School system, the Baker Center, the UT Linguistics Department and the Carson-Newman Linguistics Department.

While in Knoxville, Labov visited Pond Gap Elementary School, a university-assisted community school, to look at their program.

He is widely considered to be the innovator behind much of the methodology of sociolinguistics, and has written numerous books, including “Atlas of North American English: Phonetics, Phonology and Sound Change" in 2005.