Poverty, homelessness, hunger, crime, juvenile delinquency, drug abuse, single motherhood. These are just some of the pressing social and economic issues that plague our society today. But what if I told you that there was another problem, underlying all of these issues, that if we could solve it, would dramatically increase people’s chances of escaping these cycles of despair and improve their chance at life success? A single issue that, if we addressed it, could give people in the most difficult situations real hope and opportunity. That issue is illiteracy.
America has a literacy crisis. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 40 and 44 million Americans are either illiterate or functionally illiterate and can only perform the most simple and concrete literacy skills. Functional illiteracy, for the purpose of this topic, is defined as a person’s inability to use reading and writing for his/her own and the community’s development (Vágvölgyi, et. al). It can vary depending on where you live. For example, people in rural areas may be able to go about their daily lives with a lower level of literacy than someone in a highly urban area, where reading is needed to do even basic tasks. Essentially, it’s a lack of reading proficiency. Illiteracy is an epidemic that begins early. Two-thirds of America’s fourth graders are not reading at grade level. Children from low-income households make up the vast majority of that statistic. I am sure that most people can say that their parents have read to them when they were little. Maybe you can remember taking trips to the library, or being read a nightly bedtime story, or that you had access to books that you loved and were age-appropriate for you. Believe it or not, these seemingly trivial experiences—this exposure and interaction with books from an early age (or what psychologists call ‘literacy experiences’) were fundamental to your development. In fact, researchers at Ohio State University have recently discovered that there is a ‘million-word gap’ between children who are read to at home and those that are not (Logan et. al). Literacy experiences are how you build your communication skills, attain more complex vocabulary, and develop comprehension and processing abilities. Unfortunately, most children from low-income communities have virtually no age-appropriate books at all in their homes. As a result, they do not have adequate access to literacy experiences.
These children are at a major disadvantage. Without access to books and reading opportunities that are so important for success, children are starting school with a poor foundation and are likely to continue to fall behind. Kids who can’t read proficiently by fourth grade have a 78% chance of not catching up (One World Literacy Foundation). If you can’t read proficiently by fourth grade, it will be much more difficult to succeed in middle school and high school. Illiterate children make for illiterate adults. This translates to real world consequences, beyond formal education. We currently live in the most modern and technologically advanced era, and jobs are becoming increasingly, automated, data-driven and technical. In order to be considered ‘employable’, one must be able to process complex information quickly and apply it to their work. Illiteracy is an obstacle to employment. Low literacy rates are also closely correlated with higher rates of incarceration, poverty, and teen pregnancy. 85% of all juveniles who interface with the court system are functionally illiterate (Webb, 2014). The majority of Americans on welfare or food stamps are high school dropouts or illiterate. Illiteracy doesn’t simply mean you can’t read well. It means you are left out of the conversation. It means that your voice is more likely to be ignored, it means that you are more likely to marginalized and that you are on track for failure. There is no other factor that can so drastically alter a person’s chances at success, their income, their health, or that can break the cycle of poverty and hopelessness, like literacy.
Now, the good news is that literacy, although an epidemic, is not an incurable disease. It’s not a deeply entrenched cultural or societal defect. It’s the lack of ability to read. It’s a solvable problem. And there are plenty of holistic solutions that can and should be pursued at the national, local, and community level. Nationally, we must remove barriers to education. That includes cost, but it also includes accommodation for learning disabilities and language barriers. It means making sure schools are safe environments that are conducive to learning. It means allowing parents to choose the school that is most suitable for their child’s needs, regardless of their zip code. Equal funding for all schools is also important. We must equip teachers with the resources to get kids reading on grade level. Programs such as the ones in Florida should be in place everywhere, where literacy coaches were placed in every elementary school, and K-3 teachers were trained in literacy strategies. In the past, educational standards have been lowered to address low reading assessment scores. But limited expectations lead to limited progress, and every child deserves the opportunity to reach their highest potential.
Major companies like Hewlett-Packard, AT&T, and Smith &Wesson have sponsored assessment or remedial reading programs to address reading deficiency among their employees. The reality is, that in this modern economy, literacy levels determine potential earning ability. Workers of today must be able to analyze complex, technical material to be successful, and companies should seek to implement programs that get their employees to proficiency.
States and local communities should be looking to implement literacy programs, like Save the Children’s Literacy Boost, to empower communities to support children and their parents and foster a love for. They also help parents foster a love for learning in their child and create a culture that prioritizes reading proficiency.
Lastly, as individuals we can all be part of the solution. The reason I chose to talk about the literacy crisis is because I love to read. The main reason I love to read is because I was fortunate enough to grow up in a home where I could have any book I wanted, whenever I wanted. Even before I was old enough to read, my parents would often spend afternoons reading to me at the bookstore. It disturbed me to learn that there were kids out there who did not have the same opportunities with reading that I did. I first became passionate about the literacy crisis three years ago, when I participated in a book drive that was aimed at getting books into the hands of kids. I collected children’s books for ages preschool through 5th grade, which were then donated to elementary schools, Kids Hope Kids USA and their families, and non-profit tutoring programs. And I’ve been doing it ever since. What I learned was that a major factor in ensuring that children are proficient in reading is if they have access to books in the first place. As individuals, we can take action to fight illiteracy. Donate your used books to places like the Salvation Army, Goodwill, your local library. Support initiatives like the American Youth Literacy Foundation, volunteer at public libraries, or the YMCA, or other community outreach initiatives. Do not underestimate the impact that you can have. It may make a world of difference in a child’s story.