Is Our Children Learning?
Literacy isn't the sexiest subject, but it's incredibly important, and we have work to do.
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“Frederick Douglass taught that literacy is the path from slavery to freedom. There are many kinds of slavery and many kinds of freedom, but reading is still the path.”
— Carl Sagan
We’ve cleared the first hurdle when it comes to global literacy. In 1820, 12 percent of the world could read and write. In 1960, it was 42 percent. By 2015, that figure was 86 percent for people older than 15, having risen four points every five years over that span. That is spectacular progress. A moon landing caliber, high-five-a-stranger, rounds-for-everyone-on-the-house worthy achievement. Except, unlike the moon landing (don’t email me), it happened over decades — it wasn’t a single event everyone watched in relative real time. That makes it no less monumental, and it deserves at least a moment’s appreciation.
As illiteracy was being conquered, a more refined concept emerged: Functional illiteracy. UNESCO defined the distinction in 1978 as follows:
“A person is literate who can with understanding both read and write a short simple statement on his everyday life.
A person is functionally literate who can engage in all those activities in which literacy is required for effective functioning of his group and community and also for enabling him to continue to use reading, writing and calculation for his own and the community’s development.”
When literacy is discussed today in developed countries, it is taken for granted that the vast majority of people can read and write — it’s whether they can read and write well enough to meaningfully participate in, contribute to, and benefit from society. Here’s where we put down the champagne from earlier. 21 percent of American adults — about 43 million people — are functionally illiterate in English. Two thirds of them were born in the US. Roughly translating the 1-5 literacy scale commonly used in research into the more familiar grade level equivalencies, over 52 percent of US adults read below an eighth grade level (below PIAAC level 4). Less than 40 percent of US students score at or above NAEP proficiency in reading, and less than 30 percent for writing. That was before COVID-19 (you might need that champagne after all). Students in 2021 tested about nine points behind in reading compared to previous years, the result of having lost the equivalent of at least four months of learning due to pandemic-related disruptions in schooling. Globally, two decades of education gains were erased as the number of children experiencing reading difficulties rose by over 20 percent — 124 million kids. That’s not all. Only 42 percent of US elementary schoolers say they regularly read for fun, along with 17 percent of middle schoolers, and 19 percent of high schoolers. These figures are all down over 10 points from the 1980s. Less than 16 percent of people under 55 read every day, and 23 percent of adults say they haven’t read a book in any format in the past year. And I suspect there are quite a few fibbers out there too embarrassed to tell pollsters the truth.
The Real-World Impact of Illiteracy
Poverty. Reading ability is a skill that touches virtually every area of life. Over 40 percent of functionally illiterate people in the US live in poverty. Those in this same tier make up a quarter of adults not in the labor force. Low skills, including literacy, cost the US an estimated $225 billion per year in lost productivity and other downstream effects. There’s a direct correlation between literacy and income.
Health. Hospitalization and all-cause mortality rates are substantially higher for those with low literacy, even after adjusting for demographics, socioeconomic status, and baseline health. This is separate from the long-observed fact that well-educated people tend to live longer, a phenomenon that appears more linked to the education itself than the resultant wealth disparities. In addition, health illiteracy, the inability to read and understand health and medical information, may be costing the US economy as much as $238 billion annually according to a 2003 report. Given rising healthcare costs, that figure is likely higher now.
Economy. Perhaps the most eye-popping figure comes from a 2020 Gallup/Barbara Bush Foundation analysis that estimated eradicating illiteracy (boosting everyone to at least PIAAC level 3 literacy) would generate $2.2 trillion per year of additional income for the US. That’s equal to 10 percent of the total US economy, itself the largest in the world by a wide margin.
The inability to read and write at basic proficiency levels severely limits human potential and people’s options in life, funneling them down paths where poor outcomes are significantly more likely. The only mercy is that they can’t read this depressing article, unless a particularly cruel person reads it to them, I suppose.
Strategies For Improvement
The “Reading Wars”
(Where the greatest danger, aside from functional illiteracy, is being bored to death)
There are two prevailing philosophies on how to teach children to read. There’s the phonetic approach, or phonics, which breaks words into syllables, phonemes, and letters, teaching the building blocks of language from the bottom up. Then there’s the whole-language approach, a top-down method that treats words as self-contained little symbols or logos to be memorized. If you possess the ability to read and comprehend these words, it’s most likely because you were taught phonics. Whole-language is considered a discredited teaching method among experts, and yet it remains taught as a key component of early reading education in many places. As a team a scholars wrote in 2018:
“Today, research in psychological science spanning several decades has provided answers to many of the most important questions about reading. There is a rich literature documenting reading development and a large and diverse body of work on the cognitive processes that serve skilled reading in adults. Much of this evidence is highly relevant to the question of how reading should be taught and, pleasingly, it has been examined in comprehensive government reviews of reading instruction, including those conducted in the United States (e.g., the National Reading Panel, 2000), the United Kingdom (e.g., the Rose Review; Rose, 2006), and Australia (e.g., the Department of Education, Science and Training, or DEST; Rowe, 2005). These reviews have revealed a strong scientific consensus around the importance of phonics instruction in the initial stages of learning to read... Yet this research has been slow to make inroads into public policy.” [Link added by me.]
Here’s a useful five minute breakdown from some absolute boss:
While intellectually gifted children and those from high-literacy households will flourish no matter what, everyone else would greatly benefit from phonics-based reading instruction.
It has long been known that parental literacy is correlated with childhood reading development, especially early on. Children whose parents read to them every day in early childhood enter kindergarten having heard somewhere between hundreds of thousands and millions of words more than children never read to it, giving them a leg up in language skills. Even the mere presence of books in the home seems to have a positive impact. Any policy that puts money into peoples hands, lowers the cost of living, or better empowers parents to spend more time with their children will help to facilitate this crucial involvement. But it’s still up to parents at the end of the day. While teachers and the education system are constantly scrutinized, literacy begins at home, and what parents do or don’t do may be more consequential than any educator. If you want your kid to be better off than you, you have to model the behavior of intellectual self-improvement yourself.
The Philosophy of English Language Education
We need a culture change in elementary, middle, and high school reading curriculums. Schools should transition away from teaching literary classics and other works deemed “important”, “influential”, or historically significant, in favor of assigning more modern, relatable, accessible, and entertaining fiction. The goal of reading assignments shouldn’t be cramming students’ heads with what you think they ought to know. It should be kindling a love of reading. Every time a student walks away from a class convinced that reading is a tedious, miserable chore and that books are work, we have failed them. Every time English teachers assign Shakespeare, Moby Dick, The Great Gatsby, or The Good Earth, they weaken the nation.
As a teacher, you preside over a student’s education for only a few short years. If the pedagogical ethos shifts from filling students with important information to creating passionate readers with an intrinsic love of books, students will continue to read and grow on their own long after they leave the classroom. Too often the educational system only gives children a proverbial fish instead of teaching them to fish. We should be giving students the tools and inspiration to become students of life.
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