Literacy: You’re Contributing to the Problem

Reading has dominated my social life for as long as I can remember. I learned to read at age 4 and I have been hooked ever since. In preschool I was reading on a kindergarten level; by the start of fourth grade I was reading on a seventh grade level. For me and my friends growing up, this was normal, but for 2/3 of America’s children today, it’s not. 2/3 of America’s children are not only underachieving in reading, they’re not reading on grade level by fourth grade the most important benchmark for future educational success.

For many Americans, particularly the well-educated, this news sounds foreign. I’m currently pursuing an undergraduate English Literature degree — I read, my friends read, we spend hours on end discussing what we’ve read — illiteracy isn’t exactly something I deal with on a day-to-day basis. It’s easy to think that it’s someone else’s education and someone else’s problem. But just because it’s not my problem, or yours, doesn’t mean that literacy isn’t a problem. It affects us all.

Low literacy can be connected to almost every socioeconomic issue in the United States.

If a child is not proficiently reading in the fourth grade, they have a 78% change of not catching up, and if a student can’t read proficiently by fourth grade they have a higher chance of ending up in jail or on welfare.

More than 60% of all prison inmates are illiterate, and over 70% of inmates cannot read above a fourth grade level. Penal institution records show that inmates who do not receive literacy help have a 70% chance of returning to prison. That number drops down to 16% for inmates that do receive help. The Department of Justice states, “The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure.” That’s a clear correlation.

People with low health care literacy are more likely to skip important preventative heath care measures or mismanage their conditions and medications. Studies have demonstrated a higher rate of hospitalization and use of emergency services among patients with limited literacy skills, which is associated with higher health care costs. Low literacy adds an estimated $230 billion per year to the cost of health care.

14% of American’s over the age of 16 don’t read well enough to understand a newspaper article written at the eighth grade level or to fill out a job application. Low literacy costs the United States $225 billion or more each year in non-productivity in the workforce, crime, and loss of tax revenue due to unemployment.

Adults with low literacy rates are less likely to vote than strong readers and be active members of their community. But as their reading and writing skills improve, so does the involvement in their communities.

Parent’s that are poor readers send their children to school being less prepared for learning to read than other children.

A study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation predicted that in just one decade, the United States will not have enough skilled workers to compete in the global economy.

Girls ages sixteen to nineteen whom are at the poverty line and below and have average literacy skills are six times more likely to have a child born out of wedlock. Six.

And that’s just the United States.

The problem of illiteracy spans globally. A report by UNESCO found that at least 250 million of the world’s 650 million primary school aged children are unable to read. There are over 774 million adults around the world who are illiterate in their native languages.

Internationally it can be seen that educated mothers are more likely to send their children to school, helping rear children with strong literacy skills. In developing countries, literacy has helped reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS, helped train community first aid practitioners, and led to more sanitary drinking water. Literacy is essential if we are going to eradicate poverty both in the United States and abroad.

Without literacy skills adults are unable to function in the workplace, pay bills, understand legal and financial documents, and navigate technology. It’s an overwhelming problem, and one without a straightforward solution. It’s a battle that’s going to be fought one book, one child, and one family at a time.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting about different organizations and ways you can get involved in the fight for literacy. Whether it be in your local town or the global community, in a public school or national organization, YOU can make a difference.

Ending illiteracy starts with the literate. Ending illiteracy starts with you.

You can view statistics from the UNLD, IALS and NALS via UNESCO (, the National Center for Education Statistics ( and the U.S. Census Bureau (