Aug. 22, 2005
The phrase “illiteracy” applies to more than a simple inability to read or write. There is also “functional illiteracy”, defined as ignorance of the fundamentals of a particular area, or minimizing an expected standard of competence regarding some skill or body of information. Functional illiteracy indicates that a large segment of society has been taught how not to rely on reading as a primary source of information. (“Literacy as a Status Characteristic,” Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata, California State University, Dominguez Hills, June 1999). This problem affects crime rates, the U.S. economy and impacts adversely on American youth, as their test scores are typically among the lowest among industrialized nations.
The U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) estimates that functional illiteracy affects 24 million Americans. Educator Chester E. Finn, Jr. states, “Just five percent of seventeen-year-old high school students can read well enough to understand and use information found in technical materials, literary essays, and historical documents. Barely six percent of them can solve multi-step math problems and use basic algebra." ("A Nation Still At Risk," Chester Finn, May 1989, p. 18).
The USDOE estimates 40 million Americans 16 years of age and older possess what are called “Level 1” reading and writing skills. This means they can sign their name, but can't understand such basics as the instructions for programming a VCR, reading a map, or accurately fill out an application for a Social Security card.
Nation's Business magazine paints a more dire picture: An estimated 15 million working adults are functionally illiterate. The Northeast Midwest Institute and The Center for regional Policy asserts that this level of worker incompetence causes low productivity, errors and accidents that result in business losses that run into “the hundreds of millions of dollars.”
National Institute for Literacy further puts the issue in focus: “More than 60 percent of front-line workers in goods-producing businesses have difficulty applying information from a text to a required task.” This inability to perform proficiently is the by-product of workers having difficulty adjusting to new demands of their jobs spawned by technological advancements. Furthermore, welfare to work mandates have placed Level I workers in more jobs. John Doyle of the Employment Policies Institute in Washington, DC. cites studies that indicate an adult illiteracy rate of “at least 38 percent.”
There is a high degree of illiteracy among prison inmates, which often results in recidivism and the inability of parolees to move into the mainstream. In the Department of Justice manual, “Making Literacy Programs Work: A Practical Guide for Correctional Educators,” it is stated that one-half of all adults in federal and state correctional institutions cannot read or write at all. Only about one-third of those in prison have completed high school. The typical 25-ear old male inmate functions 2-3 grade levels below the grade actually completed. To improve these skills means tutoring of at least 100 hours per increase in grade level.
The causes for high levels of illiteracy are typically intergenerational. If the parents are incapable of reading or writing with any degree of proficiency, then they are also unable to assist in their children’s education. “An adult non-reader may have left school early, may have had a physical or emotional disability, may have had ineffectual teachers or simply may have been unready to learn at the time reading instruction began.” (“The Three Kinds of Illiteracy,” Ronald Nash, Ph.D., 1999).
It has been suggested that teacher training focus less on the nuances of running a classroom and more on curriculum content. But this is problematic because many teachers also lack basic skills. One example is in Texas, where in 1983 3,000 teachers were required to take a competency test. More than 60 percent failed the reading portion, and 46 percent failed at math. 26 percent could not pass the writing exam and to cap it all off, more than a quarter of the group cheated.
Indications are that increases in adult illiteracy are cyclical. In the 1800s a large segment of the U.S. population was illiterate, particularly in the south where slaves and poor whites were denied access to schooling. By the early part of the twentieth century, just 2.2 percent of the population was considered illiterate. After World War II “There was a similar need to "remediate" the basic skills of returning GIs. In their case, too, education had been ineffectual in their first journey through the schools.” (Curran and Takata). Now with the advent of new technologies and the influx of so many immigrants—many who had no formal education in their country of birth—we again see a spike in illiteracy rates.
Curran and Takata suggest teachers encourage group work. Those who function comfortably in reading and writing should discuss the material with those who experience more difficulty. This is an essential step in making children more willing to tackle reading assignments. They suggest that teachers require students to give short answers, trying for 25 words or less. Though students do strive to keep their answers short, the method suggested would allow these youth to “retain a sense of balance and...give longer answers or questions when they need to.”
A national survey taken some years ago made the claim that 50% of Americans have NEVER read a newspaper and 75% have never ventured into a bookstore. If this is true, it is a sad indictment of our values—which emphasize TV, DVDs and video games rather than reading material. Families seldom gather around the dinner table or in their livingrooms and discuss the issues of the day. Rather than read a classic like “The Red Badge of Courage” or even Beverly Cleary’s “Ramona and Beezus”, Adults and children alike are too eager to plop onto the sofa and zone out on mind rotting fare like, “The World According To Jim.”
For the record, Literacy Volunteers of America Inc. offers no-cost training. For more information, call (888) HELP-LVA or visit their website at www.literacyvolunteers.org.
About the author: Timothy Stelly is the 46-year old author of "Tempest In The Stone" and the soon to be released, "The Malice of Cain". His third novel, "Darker Than Blue" is under consideration for publication. Mr. Stelly currently resides in Pittsburg, California with his three youngest children Dante, Kimberly and Lawrence. Excerpts from The first two books and the first two chapters of his anthology, "Frankenigga--And Other Urban Tales" can be viewed at: