A few weeks ago, I stumbled across this blog post on literacy privilege. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. The author states she is a recovering grammar snob and goes on the explain why she no longer gleefully corrects others’ mistakes. Her reasons for refusing to continue to do so are most definitely worth a read, but what I found the most shocking was something she included towards the end of her post:
I like to shock the new tutors I train by quoting statistics from the International Adult Literacy Survey. I ask them to estimate, in a developed country like Canada or the U.S., what percentage of the population has literacy skills below the very basic level needed to function well in our society. People usually guess ten percent, fifteen percent, maybe as much as twenty-five. Then I pull out the sad, stunning facts: nearly half of all North American adults cannot cope with complex written material of the sort that the other half of us take completely for granted. HALF, you guys. This should be considered a national crisis. Not fodder for sport.
The picture becomes even more dismal when you consider the other statistics from the survey. Approximately one-fourth of U.S. adults performed at the very lowest level of literacy. Only 59% of U.S. adults at the lowest two levels of literacy were employed. This is compared to 77% at the mid level and 82% at the highest levels. Other sources present more bleak findings. 55% of adults with below basic literacy did not graduate from high school. 60% of prison inmates and 85% of juvenile offenders have literacy issues. 75% of those on welfare are functionally illiterate. The country’s literacy levels do not appear to be improving overall, either.
Literacy is also not being appropriately addressed in our schools. Of the students who do graduate from high school, 25% have only received the equivalent to a 8th grade education. Approximately 20% of high school graduates are functionally illiterate. Whether this is an issue of demographics, educator assumption, methodology, or undetected learning disorders, a large number of students are falling through the cracks.
It is unthinkable that a country which claims the be the greatest in the world would accept this. It breaks my heart and it makes me angry.
Literacy isn’t simply related to the ability to read a book. Being literate is vitally important for an individual to maintain a successful and enjoyable life.
- Literacy is directly related to employment and career successes. See the statistics above for evidence.
- It is fundamental to educational success. Almost all learning is predicated on it.
- It’s related to criminal behavior. Inmates have lower levels of literacy than the general population.
- It is needed to fully understand and participate in society. Illiterate adults risk social isolation.
- It is necessary for survival. So much of our existence is dependent on the ability to read and understand certain important information.
Literacy impacts almost every facet of our lives. So why are so many people still operating at the very basic or below basic levels? And what can we do about it?
Aside from adopting new education policies that ensure all students are literate, the issue of those who already made it to adulthood needs to be more sufficiently addressed. Despite many areas across the country implementing literacy initiatives, efforts tend to be spotty. Though there are national literacy efforts, these don’t fare as well as is needed to curb the problem. Without a sufficient nationally organized and funded program, it is difficult for literacy workers to reach all the vulnerable individuals. Additionally, the ways in which literacy programs are advertised often are counterproductive. If the programs are only advertised in print or at the library or school or in other areas unlikely to be accessed by those who need the services, they are not going to be aware of them. Even if an individual learned of the program, the stigma attached to illiteracy prohibits many from seeking the help they need. In certain areas of the country, language barriers can also make it difficult for individuals to access literacy programs.
So, what can libraries do to help?
The American Library Association has several resources and suggestions to help libraries address adult literacy issues.
- Ensure that adults with literacy issues are given equal access. This can be accomplished by providing literacy classes, materials, and services to limit access issues.
- If your library doesn’t have a literacy plan, develop one.
- If a plan is in existence, evaluate its effectiveness.
- If you live in an area with a large non-English speaking population, make sure they are being served by your programs.
- Reach out to community literacy programs and adult education programs to share resources and referrals.
Finally, something we can all do is contact government officials at all levels and charge them with addressing this epidemic. Our country needs a concentrated, organized, sustained national effort to truly combat adult illiteracy.
For more information on the history of literacy policies and libraries and proposed solutions, check out this interesting lecture by Robert Wedgeworth.