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The Shameful Secret of Illiteracy in America

 by: Penni Wild

The word is not just a sound or a written symbol. The word is a force; it is the power you have to express and communicate, to think, and thereby to create the events in your life.

- Don Miguel Ruiz

One New Jersey woman, “Maria,” read at a third grade level. She held a job and fudged her way through everyday tasks without reading. When she would go 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 “for what he’s having.” Maria even went so far as to keep her illiteracy a secret even from her husband of ten years. Because she could not read the mail, she would pretend that she forgot her glasses at work or say that she had been too busy to open the mail and ask her husband to do it. One day, they were walking past a shop window with a sign in 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 now reads, works on a computer and teaches 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 skills – they cannot read above the 6th grade level. To be illiterate in America – or anywhere for that matter – is to be unsafe, uncomfortable and unprotected. For the illiterate, despair and defeat serve as daily fare. Can any of us who do know how to read really understand the sadness that is associated with the inability to read? Can we truly relate to the silent humiliation, the quiet desperation that can’t be expressed, the hundreds of ways that those who cannot read struggle in shame to keep their secret? The struggle out of illiteracy … is still a part of the story of America.”

Today, our nation faces an epidemic that is destructive to our future. The disease is functional illiteracy. According to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), it has overtaken one-third of America's children by the fourth grade – including two-thirds of African-American students and almost half of all children in the inner cities.

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 about the functionally illiterate. What illiteracy means is that millions may not be able to understand the directions on a medicine bottle, or be able to read their telephone bill, make correct change at a store, find and keep a job, or read to a child.

Illiteracy has long been viewed as a social and educational issue - someone else's problem. However, more recently we have come to understand the economic consequences of the 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 adults holding jobs today are functionally illiterate. The American Council of Life Insurance reports that three quarters of the Fortune 500 companies provide some level of remedial training for their workers. And, a study done by the Northeast Midwest Institute and The Center for Regional Policy found that business losses attribute to basic skill deficiencies run into the hundreds of millions of dollars because of low productivity, errors and accidents.

In addition, as reported in the 1986 publication entitled Making Literacy Programs Work: A Practical Guide for Correctional Educators (for the U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Corrections), 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.

Evidence indicates that the problem begins at home. A National Governors' Association Task Force on Adult Literacy reported that illiteracy is an inter-generational problem, following a parent-child pattern. Poor school achievement and dropping out before completing school are commonplace among children of illiterate parents.

The reasons for illiteracy are as varied as the number of non-readers. The 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.

Because they are unable to help their children learn, parents who can't read often perpetuate the inter-generational cycle of illiteracy. Without books, newspapers or magazines in the home and 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 requesting reading help. Many are prompted by the need for increased levels of literacy in their jobs. Others may wish to read to a child, read the Bible or write to a family member for the first time. All express a hope for a better quality of life through higher levels of literacy.

According to Barbara Bush, "It suddenly occurred to me that every single thing I worry about – the breakup of families, drugs, AIDS, the homeless – everything would be better if more people could read, write and understand."

Let us all do what we can to make illiteracy not a part of the story of American today but a part of America’s past.

About The Author

Penni Wild is the Executive Director of New Jersey Reads. New Jersey Reads was established in 2002 by a group of literacy advocates dedicated to encouraging literacy among adults and children throughout the state. Currently, almost 40 percent of New Jersey adults cannot read medicine labels, roadway signs, or job applications, and illiteracy rates in six major New Jersey cities are more than twice the national average. As a champion of literacy for all in New Jersey, New Jersey Reads seeks to obtain funding and resources for literacy initiatives from individuals, corporations, and foundations. For more information about New Jersey Reads, visit www.newjerseyreads.org or call 609-394-5416.


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