The Adult Illiteracy Crisis in America

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We live in a world of constant communication and nonstop content creation and consumption. Modern technology gives us access to more information than we could digest in a million lifetimes. Given our ease of access to information, it can seem difficult to imagine that any adult in the U.S. might not be able to read and write. 

However, the statistics make it clear that there is an adult illiteracy crisis in America. According to the U.S. Department of Education, approximately 42 million adults nationwide have below-basic literacy skills, meaning that they are unable to perform many simple, everyday literacy activities.

This represents major problems for educators, adults, and their children across the country. In order to understand the scope of this issue, it’s important to understand the specifics, as well as what can be done to improve literacy rates.

What Is Illiteracy?

Simply put, illiteracy is an inability to read or write. This may make the above statistics seem implausible; after all, few individuals have absolutely no reading or writing skills. However, even if someone has below-basic literacy skills, they may be considered “functionally illiterate.” 

Functional illiteracy refers to inadequate literacy skills required to manage day-to-day tasks and maintain meaningful employment. Most people who are considered to be illiterate in the U.S. are actually functionally illiterate. While illiteracy and functional illiteracy differ in meaning slightly, the former is often used interchangeably with the latter.

Causes of Illiteracy

There are many factors that can impact an individual’s ability to gain the literacy skills needed to function in daily life. Causes of illiteracy include:

  • Learning disabilities such as dyslexia, dysgraphia, or a learning processing disorder;

  • Difficult living conditions such as poverty or homelessness;

  • Having parents with poor literacy skills or little schooling;

  • A lack of books at home while growing up and a lack of tutoring on the importance of reading;

  • Dropping out of school.

Many adults without literacy skills — particularly those of generations that could find good job opportunities without them — have never felt the need to return to school. However, as the digital age and automation eliminates many of these positions, these individuals have been left without the skills or opportunities needed to thrive.

US Literacy Statistics

To understand the full scope of the state of literacy in the U.S. and how our education system compares to others internationally, there are some key facts and statistics on literacy that can provide context:

  • U.S. adults who have below-basic literacy skills are 8.1% less likely to be employed than those who can possess higher-order information processing skills. They are also estimated to earn about $24,120 less per year on average.

  • Black and Hispanic adults are overrepresented in the population of people considered to be illiterate. This can largely be attributed to individuals for whom English is not their native language, as well as poor economic conditions that disproportionately affect black and Hispanic families.

  • Surveys on reading habits line up with the statistics above. Individuals who are male, black, Hispanic, or live in rural areas are statistically more likely to report not reading a book in any format in the past year. People in these demographics are also less likely to have proficient literacy skills and to get a postsecondary degree.

  • While 12.5% of 25- to 65-year-olds in the U.S. demonstrate higher-order information processing skills, 19.2% have below-basic literacy skills. This means that the U.S. ranks above average in both respects. Canada, England, Finland, Japan, and Sweden rank more favorably in both respects. France, Italy, Poland, and Spain rank less favorably. 

In summary, there is a clear connection between literacy, education attainment, and income — and this is leading to major disparities in the U.S. There is a major divide between people in these respects along racial and socioeconomic lines. The U.S. Department of Education states:

“ … (T)here is evidence of a widening division … The poverty rate for Black families is nearly three times that for White families. One child in five is born into poverty, and for minority populations, this rate approaches one in two.”

While literacy rates may be improving on a global scale, racial disparities in the U.S. are widening.

The Consequences of Adult Illiteracy

Adult illiteracy can have serious consequences for people who are considered to be illiterate, their children, and communities at large. As the statistics above show, illiteracy leads to higher unemployment rates and lower-paying jobs. The children of adults who are functionally illiterate are also less likely to develop literacy skills, leading to continued intergenerational literacy issues.

Further, there is a relationship between literacy skills and health outcomes. Lower literacy skills are linked to problems such as:

  • Struggles with using preventive services;

  • Delayed diagnoses;

  • A lack of understanding of medical conditions;

  • A lack of adherence to medical instructions;

  • Increased mortality risk.

Illiteracy can also impact the U.S. as a whole in many ways. Positions that require skilled employees may be left unfilled as illiteracy persists. It also results in lower-paying jobs, meaning that people without literacy skills must often rely on government financial aid. Higher healthcare costs due to a lack of literacy can strain the country’s already-overburdened healthcare system. Further, illiteracy can impact the ability of people to practice civic engagement or participate in elections.

What Educators Can Do About Adult Illiteracy

No single person, organization, or even government can tackle the issue of adult illiteracy alone. However, as an educator, you are in a unique position to help address this issue. With the right approach and resources, you can make a dramatic impact on your community and generations to come. Practice the following methods in order to maximize your ability to reduce illiteracy.

Educate Yourself

Before you can effectively address the issue of adult illiteracy in the U.S., it’s essential that you make an effort to learn more about the issue. Learning more about its causes and consequences can help you become a stronger advocate. School districts can contribute to this development by providing teachers with resources, including helpful studies and guides on the state of literacy and education as a whole. Consult the following resources to keep apprised on issues related to adult education and literacy:

Prioritize Reading In Your Classroom

An essential part of creating an effective curriculum is meeting all national and state standards, as well as incorporating all mandated material. Fulfilling these requirements may feel restrictive, but they shouldn’t detract from your ability to make reading a priority in your classroom. 

Remember that, for some children, the reading they do in your classroom is the only exposure to literature that they may have. For this reason, it’s important to keep your room stocked with books. Getting wholesale education books can allow you to fill your shelves with books that can inspire students to pursue new paths and develop a lifelong love of reading. English and language arts books including novels, collections of poetry, instructional guides, and non-fiction can prove to be invaluable for teachers of those subjects. 

Here are some suggestions you can try to motivate students to love reading:

  • Teach students reading strategies to help students interpret and synthesize information;

  • Incorporate a passion for reading in the design and decor of your room;

  • Invite an author to speak to your students about the joys of writing;

Encourage Reading Outside the Classroom

You must encourage learners to read outside the classroom as well. Emphasize the importance of reading outside the classroom. Again, be aware that you may be the only access to reading that some of your learners have. Demonstrate your passion for reading and instill this passion in as many of them as possible.

The key to inspiring students to practice independent reading is to give them structured opportunities to get familiar with reading for pleasure. Once you’ve stocked your classroom with books, you can schedule classroom time for independent reading. Let students select their own book, but encourage them to explore new genres or authors. You may even consider heading a book club for students interested in reading classic or popular novels, then discussing them. This will entice them to read so that they can engage in discussions in this extracurricular group.

Get Involved

Outside of your classroom, you can take efforts to get involved with adult literacy organizations, charities, and nonprofit groups in your area. If you have the time to participate in these groups, do so. Helping just one adult improve their literacy skills is a major success that can have long-lasting positive impacts. Any effort you can take to get involved is well worth your time and energy.

Consider donating money to groups dedicated to eradicating illiteracy in your community. Some major literacy organizations you can also consider donating to include Room to Read, the National Center for Families Learning, and the World Literacy Foundation.

Adult illiteracy can have major impacts on communities. Understanding the scope of the issue is vital to taking steps to address it. Educators must do what they can to inspire a love of reading in their students and participate in their communities in any way they can to improve literacy rates.