The Importance of Literacy

One of the greatest pleasures of the human mind is to lie down with a warm drink, cuddle up under a blanket, and read an enthralling book. Literacy not only aids us in leisure reading, but ordering food from a menu, figuring out what directions to take to someone’s house, and filling out important governmental documents.

Literacy is crucial for a high quality of life, and here’s why.

Some Facts About Literacy in the United States

The United States is the 7th most literate country in the world, with Finland, Norway, and Iceland coming in at the top three. The U.S.’s standing is pretty good, considering there are 195 countries in the world. However, the U.S. still has some problems when it comes to its literacy rates.

Approximately 32 million adults in the U.S. are illiterate, meaning they can’t read. That adds up to about 14% of the country’s population.

Not only that, but 21% of the U.S. adult population read below a 5th-grade level, and 19% of high school graduates cannot read.

Worse, perhaps, is the interaction between illiteracy and incarceration. It is thought that 85% of the juveniles interacting with the juvenile incarceration system can’t seem to read, and 70% of inmates in the United States cannot read past a 4th-grade level.

Illiteracy seems to be generational. Children with parents who cannot read well have a 72% chance of having low literacy themselves (though it’s unclear whether low parental literacy is due to having English as a second language or not).

You might think that people with low literacy can get by without reading, but illiteracy has real economic costs. Experts estimate that low literacy costs the United States healthcare system between 106 billion and 238 billion in health care costs because people can’t read the instructions to properly take their medicine or follow their doctor’s orders.

Therefore, illiteracy comprises between 7-17% of personal healthcare expenditures. This is in addition to the potential labor and workforce cost of people forgoing higher-paying jobs that require reading frequently.

While the United States has a literacy rate of 99%, people are still clearly falling behind — and it has tangible social and economic costs to the country.

Girls aged 16 to 19 living in poverty with below-average literacy are six times more likely than their literate counterparts to become single mothers.

You might wonder how it’s possible that people in modern society can grow up without being able to read. While there are numerous reasons to explain why, a reporter from WNYC in New York City follows three people who sued the New York education system for failing to teach them how to read — and won.

Some Reasons Why People Grow Up Illiterate

Yamilka graduated high school at the age of 21. She only knew eight letters of the alphabet. When it was time to order her cap and gown for the graduation ceremony, she found that she couldn’t — much to the frustration of her mother.

Yamilka and her family are from the Dominican Republic, reporter Beth Fertig explains. Her parents came first to America and took Yamilka’s two oldest siblings, leaving Yamilka and her two younger siblings behind. There were some family problems back home, so the younger kids didn’t go to elementary school, leaving them out of the critical period for language acquisition.

By the time Yamilka and her younger siblings came to the New York City Public School system, they were sent to English as a Second Language classes, but no one learned that the young children had learning disabilities until years later.

Since the parents had little formal education of their own — and they were immigrants to a new country and a new school system — they didn’t know how to navigate the New York City schools so that they could give their children a head start in reading. It was a combination of circumstances, immigration, and the school failing to realize that the children had special needs.

Of course, Yamilka and her family show a special reason why people grow up illiterate. Most children in the United States will learn how to read — some 80% of them, according to Fertig. However, she notes that children who are poor, who grow up in a family in which the parents have little education, and who aren’t read to at an early age grow up disadvantaged.

For children with stable housing and home situations, school comes easy. But you can imagine situations in which a young person’s circumstances lead their attention away from school. For example, many kids grow up in poverty, which can cause them to focus more on helping to bring more income to the family through odd jobs versus focusing on literacy-building homework.

The Nefarious Nature of Learning Disabilities

It’s estimated that 1 in 5 children in the United States has a learning disability. The most common learning disabilities include:

  • Dyslexia, which changes how someone reads. It’s related to their language-based processing skills.
  • Dyscalculia — a learning disability that affects someone’s ability to understand numbers and math.
  • Dysgraphia, which undermines someone’s fine motor skills and handwriting abilities.

According to Understood, an organization striving to help people with learning disabilities and thinking differences, only 1 in 16 public schools have IEPs for children with learning disabilities. An IEP is an Individualized Education Program, which provides support and services like speech therapy and multisensory reading instruction for individuals who need them.

It must be noted that dyslexia and dyscalculia are different from ADHD. Dyslexia and dyscalculia are two of the learning disability categories covered under special education law, according to Understood. ADHD and other attention deficit disorders count as “other health impairments,” which can still mean they qualify for special education but in different ways.

More than half (54%) of kids in special education programs have the IEPS for a learning disability or other health impairment. Over one-third, (38%) of students with IEPs have a learning disability.

About 2.3 million public school kids have IEPs for learning disabilities, which is the largest disability category covered by special education law. Compare this to 970,000 public school kids who have IEPs for other health impairments such as ADHD.

However, this category is growing fast, since research says that nearly 66% of children in the “other health impairment” category have ADHD, according to Understood.

Learning disabilities don’t have to be a death sentence for someone’s academic career — even if they don’t get help for their learning disability. The Oklahoma Department of Libraries describes the story of Delos Cosgrove.

Cosgrove didn’t know he was dyslexic until he was 32 years old. He progressed from high school to college to medical school before understanding that he had a learning disability. It wasn’t until he dated a school teacher while a resident in Boston who noticed that he couldn’t read aloud that someone finally connected the dots.

Dr. Delos Cosgrove went on to become an author, cardiac surgeon, and inventor. Not only that, but he became the president and chief executive officer of the Cleveland Clinic — one of the largest and most respected hospitals in the United States, and a hospital with one of the best cardiology units in the country.

Dr. Cosgrove’s story is certainly one that describes overcoming adversity and succeeding in spite of a learning disability. But his story is an outlier in the usual narrative.

Those with learning disabilities who don’t get help for it can feel discouraged and tell themselves that they’re too stupid to persist in school — even though a learning disability like dyslexia bears no connection to someone’s intelligence.

Only 1 in 4 people with learning disabilities in college tell their professors about their special needs. Not only that, but 1 in 20 young adults with learning disabilities receive accommodations for it in the workplace. As a result, the 18.1% drop out rate for people with learning disabilities are three times the rate of all students (6.5%).

Learning disabilities are incredibly common in the United States, but school systems are still unequipped to treat students with special learning needs. As a result, people pass through the system with sub-par literacy skills — and that leads to lower literacy rates.

Why Literacy is Important

While a majority of U.S. citizens are growing up literate, there still millions of illiterate people in which their below-average reading skills will put them at a disadvantage. Perhaps the United States needs to put more money into its education systems to catch the folks who pass year to year with sub-par reading skills. It would benefit the whole country if it did, and here’s why.

Literacy Leads to a Better Life

Remember what we mentioned about illiteracy costing between $106 billion and $238 billion in health care costs?

It proves that literacy is more than a casual consequence of growing up in poverty or as an immigrant to the United States. Literacy is dangerous, and it can cause real harm to people who can’t take their medication correctly because they can’t read their prescriptions.

Not only that, but not being able to read well makes you a vulnerable target. In financial situations such as getting a loan, the lender can tell you anything they want about what’s in the contract.

They could lie about the interest rate or the time in which you have to pay it off. And since the loaner can’t read the fine print, they either have to find a literate person to read the contract for them — which could be time-consuming and a hassle to do — or simply follow what the lender says.

Illiteracy also means less schooling. This makes sense as schools often require students to take tests and write essays to prove they’re learning the material. Schools also require reading from textbooks or assigned literature. But if you can’t read, you can’t follow along in classes nor the readings — in addition to failing to do the tests.

As a result, many people who can’t read drop out of school early since they aren’t able to succeed in the metrics that the American education system places on them.

There are lots of statistics to show that dropping out of high school leads to a lower standard of living. It’s estimated that 1.2 million students drop out of high school in the U.S. every year — which means one student every 26 seconds or 7,000 a day.

Not only that, but 25% of high school freshmen in America fail to graduate on time. As a result, the U.S. is 22 out of the 27 developed countries in terms of graduation rates.

We know that there are tangible salary differences between people at different education levels.

  • Those without a high school diploma make about $25,000.
  • Only obtaining a high school diploma earns people about $35,000. That’s $10,000 more a year to play with.
  • Getting a bachelor’s earns someone $60,000 on average — nearly double that of someone with only a high school diploma.

The ability to read well is the key to graduating from high school and succeeding further in life. While you don’t have to go to college after high school, reading certainly helps in whatever other life path someone decides to take.

Low reading abilities also mean taking lower-paying jobs and thus living closer to the American poverty level. Lots of lower-paying jobs require manual labor only, so they don’t require the worker to read. This means lower lifetime income and less financial stability should the country’s economic system take a nosedive.

Not only that, but illiteracy can lead to higher rates of unemployment. The unemployment rate is 2-4 times higher among those with little schooling compared to those with a Bachelor’s degree.

Since someone who grows up illiterate might not have an education, they might not value education. As a result, this means that a parent might not value education in their own child. They might value the hard manual labor that they grew up doing more, which means the parent is less invested in their child’s education.

A parent devaluing education as a result of their low literacy could mean that the child grows up devaluing education as well. This leads to a cycle of people growing up with poor reading skills and low literacy.

The Social and Cultural Aspect of Illiteracy

We can focus on the academic and financial aspects of illiteracy, but many people fail to realize that illiteracy causes social exclusion.

If you’re literate, you take it for granted every time you text someone. You pull out your phone, open the messaging app, and write someone a quick message. But if you can’t read well, let alone write well, texting might seem like an arduous task.

The simple fix to that might be to call people instead of texting, but calling is becoming less and less of the norm among young people. Friends might get annoyed that you leave constant voice mails detailing simple messages, such as you’re going to be a little late for dinner.

Calling is disruptive; after all — you have to halt whatever you’re doing to pick up the phone, whereas texting lets people communicate at their earliest convenience.

Group texts and group messages are especially common among young people. It’s a common practice in college classes, for example, to start a group messaging system on an app like GroupMe or WhatsApp to discuss assignments and other important aspects of the class. If you can’t read what’s on your phone, you’re isolated from the conversation.

Not only are you left out of daily communication on the phone, but you’re also left out of the cultural texts that lots of media are based on. Many contemporary works are based on Shakespeare’s plays, for example, such as the Lion King being based on Hamlet and 10 Things I Hate About You being based on The Taming of the Shrew.

If you never grew up reading the books that your culture is based on, you can feel like you’re a foreigner to your own country. Even if it’s just the most recent hit on the New York Times Best Seller List, you can’t participate in conversations that involve the latest book craze. And you can’t even pull up SparkNotes or a book review to get a quick primer.

Why Early Literacy is Particularly Important

When we say early literacy, we mean young kids approximately between the ages of 4-8 who can read well.

Children who are introduced to reading early tend to not only read better but excel better in school versus those who were not exposed to literature at a young age.

It doesn’t have to be just reading. Rhyming, singing, and simply talking to a child from birth can drastically influence a child’s language development skills, which is the foundation for learning other major skills like writing, critical thinking, and proper interpersonal communication.

It’s estimated that 1 in 3 children in the United States starts kindergarten without proper reading skills, so developing early literacy skills is crucial for helping children obtain literacy.

Reading to a child can set them up for success long after their early years in school. The book The Enchanted Hour by Meghan Cox Gurdon details just that. Reading aloud to children from birth to kindergarten age has been shown to set children up for a more successful life.

Reading aloud to children, of course, builds better literacy skills from an early age. It helps children build better:

  • Phonemic awareness, which is the ability to hear, identify and play with unique sounds in verbal words.
  • Phonics, or how well you connect letters of a written word to the sounds of a verbal word. For example, “cough” is phonetically spelled differently from how you actually pronounce it (“cof”).
  • Vocabulary. Reading aloud to kids helps them pick up more words to use when they themselves communicate with others.
  • Reading comprehension. Kids will have an easier time silently reading and absorbing the information they read.
  • Fluency. Kids can read a text aloud quicker and more accurately.

Reading aloud to a child also helps children be more imaginative and thus better problem solvers. Reading aloud to a child also confers social benefits as well, since you’re often sitting next to your child as you read to them. It’s an inherently intimate and bond-forming event.

Improved early literacy is associated with improved concentration and discipline. Reading inherently requires focus. Words won’t get into your brain unless your eyes are moving across the words, and you can’t absorb the words unless you’re quiet and paying attention to them. You must know from personal experience how hard it is to read when your mind is distracted.

Young children already have a hard time sitting still and focusing for long periods, which can place them at a disadvantage at school — which requires long periods of sitting still and focusing on the teacher. When a child reads more, they fare better at physically being a student at school. They not only sit still and focus, but they remember what they learned better as well.

Perhaps most importantly, cultivating early literacy in young children fosters a lifelong love for reading. Kids who love reading their children’s books and comics will slowly increase their reading levels into harder texts, such as literary novels and tougher graphic novels like Fun Home by Alison Bechdel.

Liking to read fosters critical thinking, since you as a reader often try to think about what will happen next in the plot as you’re in the middle of a story. Not only that, but reading books is associated with higher empathy since you’re placing yourself in the shoes of someone you’ve never met before and experiencing the world as they experience it.

Since reading improves empathy, it can improve a person’s interpersonal skills since empathy can lead to better listening skills. You don’t like it when someone is distracted when you talk to them, so you pay someone better attention when they talk to you. Better listening is the crux of better communication and thus, better relationships. And it all starts with reading more.

It’s Never Too Late to Learn to Read

Awa (whose name has been changed to protect her privacy) was 41 in 2016. Born in Gambia, a country in West Africa, Awa had five children between the ages of 4 and 13. She walked into the Aguilar Adult Learning Center in New York City and asked the site advisor, “Can you help me? I want to learn to read.”

Though her spoken English was poor, she had a clear desire to learn to read. Awa only received a few months of education before coming to the United States, but it wasn’t going to stop her from learning how to read.

She used computer software to learn the sounds, click on pictures, and repeat words. Learning to read so late in life wasn’t easy, and Awa often felt frustrated.

She sometimes couldn’t understand the computer’s instructions. She didn’t even know the alphabet, which made reading instructions much more difficult. Just holding a pencil was difficult for her, and writing much harder. Constantly running into failure greatly demoralized Awa, and she was ready to give up on learning to read.

Another one of Aguilar’s volunteers named Elizabeth felt frustration as well. She helped people learn to read at the library, but students often didn’t show up to class. The linear phonics program she ran depended on daily lessons. Otherwise, students would fall behind. Elizabeth still couldn’t make students come to class, which exasperated her.

So when the eager teacher met the eager student, it was a match made in heaven. They built a 7-year-long relationship and spent four hours in the library every week teaching Awa how to read. With constant hard work, Awa went from a level 0 reading level to grade 5 level — then rose even higher.

With help from Elizabeth, she constantly improved her skills until she was able to read books to her youngest children. At the time of Awa’s story became public, she was entertaining ideas of going to school to become a nurse, which would require enrolling in college for at least one year to get it. Awa felt determined, though.

Awa is a glowing success story of how it’s never too late for someone to learn to read and improve their lives. It takes dedication, high self-esteem, and proper support from patient mentors, but it is possible.

Literacy is crucial for a high standard of living and successful life. If you’re a parent, read to your children every day and work to improve their literacy skills. If you’re a person who can read, pick up more books to improve your literacy skills.

And if you know someone who can’t read, help them to improve their reading skills. The gift of reading is perhaps the best gift you could give anyone. As Awa’s success story shows, it’s never too late to learn language skills, so get started and watch them thrive.

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