Illiteracy in America

7 Dec

This is an absolutely jaw-dropping statistic. According the article, Opinion Brief: Detroit’s ‘shocking’ 47 percent illiteracy rate which was posted at The Week:

More than 200,000 Detroit residents — 47 percent of Motor City adults — are “functionally illiterate,” according to a new report released by the Detroit Regional Workforce Fund. That means they can’t fill out basic forms, read a prescription, or handle other tasks most Americans take for granted, according to the fund’s director, Karen Tyler-Ruiz, as quoted by CBS Detroit. Her organization’s study also found that the education and training aimed at overcoming these problems “is inadequate at best,” says Jackie Headapohl at Michigan Live.

Illiteracy is a global problem, with some geographic areas and populations suffering more from illiteracy than others.

Education Portal defines illiteracy in the article, Illiteracy: The Downfall of American Society.

Most people think of literacy as a simple question of being able to read. But while a young child who can work her way through a basic picture book is considered to have age-appropriate literacy levels, an adult who can only read at the most fundamental level is still functionally illiterate.

The world requires that adults not only be able to read and understand basic texts, but also be able to function in the workplace, pay bills, understand legal and financial documents and navigate technology – not to mention the advanced reading comprehension skills required to pursue postsecondary education and the opportunities that come with it.

As a result, when we talk about the effects of illiteracy on society, we’re talking primarily about what happens when you have a large number of adults whose literacy skills are too low to perform normal, day-to-day tasks. However, it is worth keeping in mind that childhood illiteracy is, of course, directly correlated to adult illiteracy.

The key concept is the individual cannot adequately function in the society in which they live. That means that tasks necessary to provide a satisfactory life are difficult because they cannot read and/or comprehend what they read.

ProLiteracy provides basic facts about illiteracy in the article, Basic Facts about Literacy:

Literacy is the ability to read, write, compute, and use technology at a level that enables an individual to reach his or her full potential as a parent, employee, and community member.

  • There are 759 million adults–approximately 16 percent of the world’s population–who have only basic or below basic literacy levels in their native languages.
  • Two-thirds of the world’s lowest literate adults are women (640 million women have basic or below basic literacy skills).
  • In the U.S., 63 million adults — 29 percent of the country’s adult population —over age 16 don’t read well enough to understand a newspaper story written at the eighth grade level.
  • An additional 30 million 14 percent of the country’s adult population — can only read at a fifth grade level or lower.
  • Forty-three percent of adults with the lowest literacy rates in the United States live in poverty.
  • The United States ranks fifth on adult literacy skills when compared to other industrialized nations.
  • Adult low literacy can be connected to almost every socio-economic issue in the United States:
    • More than 65 percent of all state and federal corrections inmates can be classified as low literate.
    • Low health literacy costs between $106 billion and $236 billion each year in the U.S.
    • Seventy-seven million Americans have only a 2-in-3 chance of correctly reading an over-the-counter drug label or understanding their child’s vaccination chart.
    • Low literacy’s effects cost the U.S. $225 billion or more each year in non-productivity in the workforce, crime, and loss of tax revenue due to unemployment.
  • Globally, illiteracy can be linked to:
    • Gender abuse, including female infanticide and female circumcision
    • Extreme poverty (earning less than $1/day)
    • High infant mortality and the spread of HIV/Aids, malaria, and other preventable infectious diseases

Many of those who are illiterate are successful in hiding the fact that they cannot read.

According to the Gaston Literacy Council, there are Signs of Illiteracy:

Common Things Someone In Need Of Literacy Services Might Say or Do:

  • May I take that application home to fill it out and bring it back to you?

  • You read the work order and I’ll gather up the tools.

  • Could you fill this out for me?  I forgot my glasses.

  • I don’t like to read.

  • I didn’t bring my glasses.  Can you tell me what this says?

  • Fake a coughing fit and/or leave the Sunday School class or other assembly when it’s their turn to read.

  • May I take this test orally?  It makes my eyes burn to read.

  • I don’t need to write that down; I’ll remember it.

  • I lost my appointment card.  What time is my appointment?

  • Cannot read the appointment card and habitually shows up really early or too late.

  • I can see really well far away, but can’t make out anything up close.

  • Received a certificate of attendance instead of a diploma.

  • Always unable to find a pencil or paper when asked to take a phone message.

  • At a restaurant, “I’ll have what he’s having.”

Solving illiteracy is a complex problem, but for an excellent analysis of the problem, go to Illiteracy in America. Extent, Causes, and Suggested Solutions, Patricia H. Smith and others .

Here is the abstract:

This report examines reasons for the varying estimates of illiteracy in the United States. It discusses why the agency charged with transmitting literacy, the public school system, has not satisfactorily accomplished this task and recommends improvements to reduce and eradicate illiteracy. Part 1 focuses on the confusion about the extent of illiteracy because of varying definitions of literacy. The relationship between literacy and the economy is discussed in light of business and industrial needs for and concern over the lack of a literate work force. Other factors affecting estimates of illiteracy are highlighted. Part 2 considers causation by examining how each of the various elements woven into the fabric of education contribute to the decline in literacy. The discussion centers on an examination of the changes resulting from three important shifts in American culture and education: a philosophical shift from traditional to progressive, a societal shift from traditional to permissive, and a governance shift from local to state and federal and from lay to professional. The issue of holding schools responsible is addressed. Part 3 offers recommendations for prevention of the problem with accompanying explanations. These are made in response to the three shifts discussed in section 2. A conclusion summarizes stated and implied recommendations. A list of 288 references is included. (YLB)


Illiteracy in America. Extent, Causes, and Suggested Solutions.

Smith, Patricia H.;  And Others

Full-Text Availability Options:

PDF ERIC Full Text (7706K)

So much attention has been focused on testing, that some of the basic skills which children must learn, like reading have been neglected.


National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL)

Illiteracy: An Incurable Disease or Education Malpractice?

Living in the Shadows: Illiteracy in America            

Dr. Wilda says this about that ©

3 Responses to “Illiteracy in America”


  1. More research about the importance of reading « drwilda - June 5, 2012

    […] The goal of parents, teachers, students, and society should be that all children succeed in obtaining a good basic education. In order to achieve this goal, children must come to school ready to learn. See, Illiteracy in America […]

  2. Helping at-risk children start a home library « drwilda - June 13, 2012

    […] The goal of parents, teachers, students, and society should be that all children succeed in obtaining a good basic education. In order to achieve this goal, children must come to school ready to learn. See, Illiteracy in America […]

  3. Brookings research paper: Retaining students in early grades « drwilda - August 20, 2012

    […] The goal of parents, teachers, students, and society should be that all children succeed in obtaining a good basic education. In order to achieve this goal, children must come to school ready to learn. See, Illiteracy in America […]

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