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The Shameful Secret of Illiteracy in America
A word is not just a sound or a written symbol. The word is power; it is the power you have to express and communicate, to think and thereby create the events of your life. – Don Miguel Ruiz
A New Jersey woman, “Maria,” reads at a third-grade level. She held down a job and handled daily tasks without reading. When she went to a restaurant, she would order what she knew was on the menu — a hamburger, salad or grilled chicken — or point to someone else’s plate at the next table and ask “what’s he eating for.” Maria even went so far as to keep her illiteracy a secret even from her husband of ten years. Because she couldn’t read the mail, she pretended to forget her glasses at work or said she was too busy to open the mail and asked her husband to do it. One day they passed a shop window with a sign on it. As they looked at the display, the husband suddenly realized that his wife could not read. Maria was embarrassed and humiliated. But she sought help and is now reading, working on a computer and teaching others to read.
In 2002, before the Subcommittee on Education Reform, Committee on Education and the Workforce, United States House of Representatives, actor James Earl Jones testified: “92 million Americans have low or very low literacy—they cannot read above a 6- you class to be illiterate in America—or anywhere for that matter—is to be unsafe, uncomfortable, and unprotected. For the illiterate, despair and defeat are daily food. Can any of us who know how to read really understand the sadness that comes with not being able to read? Can we really relate to the silent humiliation, the silent desperation that cannot be expressed, the hundreds of ways in which those who cannot read struggle in shame to keep their secret? The fight against illiteracy … is still part of America’s history.”
Today, our nation faces an epidemic that is devastating to our future. The disease is functional illiteracy. According to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), it has outpaced one-third of America’s children by fourth grade — including two-thirds of African-American students and nearly half of all inner-city children.
The basic definition of literacy is the ability to read and write. So the basic definition of illiteracy is the inability to read and write.
Beyond the basic definitions, there is significance in the shocking statistics of the functionally illiterate. What illiteracy means is that millions may not be able to understand the directions on a medicine bottle or read their phone bill, make proper change at a store, find and keep a job, or read to a child.
Illiteracy has long been seen as a social and educational problem – someone else’s problem. More recently, however, we have come to understand the economic consequences of a lack of literacy skills for America and American business.
Illiteracy has a significant impact on the economy. According to Nation’s Business magazine, 15 million working adults today are functionally illiterate. The American Board of Life Insurance reports that three-quarters of Fortune 500 companies provide some level of remedial training for their workers. And a study by the Northeast Midwest Institute and The Center for Regional Policy found that business losses due to basic skills deficiencies totaled hundreds of millions of dollars due to poor productivity, errors and accidents.
Furthermore, as reported in the 1986 publication entitled “Making Literacy Programs Work: A Practical Guide for Correctional Educators” (for the US Department of Justice, National Institute of Corrections), half of all adults in federal and state correctional institutions cannot read or write at all. Only about a third of prisoners have completed high school.
Evidence shows that the problem starts at home. The National Governors Association’s Adult Literacy Task Force reported that illiteracy is an intergenerational problem following the parent-child pattern. Poor school performance and dropping out before graduation are common among children of illiterate parents.
The causes of illiteracy are as varied as the number of non-readers. An adult who does not read may have left school early, may have had a physical or emotional disability, may have had ineffective teachers, or simply may not have been ready to learn when reading instruction began.
Unable to help their children learn, parents who cannot read often perpetuate the intergenerational cycle of illiteracy. Without books, newspapers, or magazines in the home, and without a parent who reads to serve as a role model, many children grow up with severe literacy deficiencies. Clearly, there is no single cause of illiteracy.
Adults have many reasons for asking for help with reading. Many of them are driven by the need for increased levels of literacy in their work. Others may wish to read to a child, read the Bible, or write to a family member for the first time. All express hope for a better quality of life through higher levels of literacy.
According to Barbara Bush, “Suddenly it occurred to me that every single thing I worry about—the breakdown of families, drugs, AIDS, homelessness—would all be better if more people could read, write, and understand.”
Let us all do what we can to make illiteracy part of the history of Americans today, and part of America’s past.
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