The looming threat of illiterate America

Ninety-eight percent of the world’s non-literate population lives in developing countries such as India or on the African continent.

But while many Americans are aware of the illiteracy rates that exist abroad, it may come as a surprise to many that the United States’ illiteracy rate has been growing in the past two decades.

According to the National Institute for Literacy, more than 50 million Americans cannot read or write at an eighth grade level. That’s more than twice the population of New York State.

The U.S. Education Department recently concluded that at least 32 million of those people are completely illiterate – that is, entirely unable to read or write a sentence in their primary
language.

The prospect of growing illiteracy is scary for more reasons than you might initially think. Besides the fact that an illiterate person will live an extremely difficult life, the deeper danger is in how that person will affect their offspring, and overall, the country.

The National Institute for Literacy stated that illiterate adults make up almost 50 percent of the American welfare system, 75 percent of the unemployment population, and 70 percent of the current inmate population, while close to 90 percent of all juvenile offenders suffer from some form of illiteracy.

If this comes as shocking news, it may help to learn that the U.S. has a high school dropout rate of approximately 29 percent; contrast that with Japan’s 5 percent and Russia’s 2 percent and it is easier to account for all these illiterate Americans.

But according to many who study national illiteracy patterns, the problem is rooted deeper than elevated high school dropout rates. In fact, 20 percent of graduating high school seniors are mildly illiterate upon receiving their diplomas, according to the National Right to Read Foundation.

With the number of illiterate American adults increasing by nearly 2.25 million every year, according to the foundation, it is clear that some persisting problem is causing these literacy issues; but it remains unclear what this problem is.

Some people quickly blame insufficient education funding from the government, but this is a weak argument because education funding has doubled in the last decade.

It may be time to analyze and question the way instruction is carried out in American schools, and learn from those countries practicing different reading comprehension and linguistic
education methods.

It’s no coincidence that American children are significantly less likely to learn a second language unless they live in a bilingual home.

This is not so in many European countries, where multiple languages are instilled during primary and secondary education. Also, many European and Asian children test higher in math and comprehension skills than do the majority of American children, according to a recent article in the Agence France-Presse.

In addition to planning for the future with educational reform, it is equally important that we reach out to those battling illiteracy in the present.

Many illiterate American adults live their lives in turmoil and keep their handicap a secret. Literacy institutions and tutoring centers need to be more widely accessible in areas with higher concentrations of illiterate citizens.

Those interested in learning more about illiteracy statistics in the U.S. or inquiring about other information on the subject should research the National Right to Read Foundation, the National Institute for Literacy, or the CIA’s world fact book Web site. The best way to help improve our country’s illiteracy rate and make a difference is to get involved.