42 million American adults can’t read at all

Every year, at least two million adults considered to be functionally illiterate swell the ranks of Americans unable to read. If this critical problem isn’t addressed soon, society will most certainly pay the price.

Illiteracy Statistics
42 million American adults can’t read at all; 50 million are unable to read at a higher level that is expected of a fourth or fifth grader.
The number of adults that are classified as functionally illiterate increases by about 2.25 million each year.
20 percent of high school seniors can be classified as being functionally illiterate at the time they graduate.

Source: National Right to Read Foundation

Where Illiteracy Leads
70 percent of prisoners in state and federal systems can be classified as illiterate.
85 percent of all juvenile offenders rate as functionally or marginally illiterate.
43 percent of those whose literacy skills are lowest live in poverty.
Source: National Institute for Literacy

America’s Reading Problem
America is supposed to be one of the world’s most affluent and technologically-advanced societies. Free public education is available everywhere in this country, and the federal government spends about $10 billion every year on literacy education.

So why do Americans have this problem with reading?

According to some, the root of this problem lies with our public education system. National Assessment of Educational Progress testing indicates that the percentage of American children who are able to read well hasn’t improved at all in the last 25 years.

Many people argue that the reason behind this failure to improve is a lack of public education funding. But this doesn’t seem right, as public education spending has doubled in the last 15 years.

This only leaves one other argument: there is something fundamentally wrong with the instruction that American children receive.

Author Rudolf Flesch addresses this issue in a book on phonics called Why Johnny Can’t Read. According to Flesch, ‘the teaching of reading all over the United States–in all of the schools and in all of the textbooks–is totally wrong, and flies in the face of all logic and common sense’.

Fleach, however, does not blame the schools or even the teachers, but instead blames the method of teaching that has been in use since 1927. This ‘look and say’ method relies on memorizing and recognizing words on sight.

In 1930, a ‘basal reading’ series, which incorporates the above method, was released. The books used by American children today for learning to read are basically the same books that were used in the 1930s.

This is extremely unusual given the fact that hundreds of studies have shown the phonics method consistently provides better results. Phonics first teaches the relationship between letters and sounds, only later focusing on reading-the exact opposite of the look and say approach.

The U.S. Department of Education actually recommends the phonics approach, yet many American schools, teachers, and colleges that teach teachers are unwilling to accept this recommendation.

If your child or a child you know is about to enter an American school, talk to the teacher to find out the method being used and ask how you may be able to supplement the reading education your child receives in class at home.

You can also learn more about how you can join the fight against illiteracy on this site and through various organizations including the National Right to Read Foundation and the National Institute for Literacy.

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