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How Come 44 MIllion Americans Can't Read

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The literacy rate in America is officially 99%. But before we sit back, open the champagne and pat ourselves on the back, consider this…

America has a functional illiteracy rate of 22%. This means that over 44 million American adults cannot do anything more complex than make out certain letters, or spell their name. They cannot read anything even as complex as a restaurant menu, or street signs. And don’t even consider being able to read a note from their kid’s teachers or a job application form.

In contrast, Vietnam, a county still considered ‘developing’, has a functional illiteracy rate of 6.7%.

WTF? How, in this country, in the 21st century, can we allow this to happen? And how can we reverse the trend?

Growing up, there is a stigma attached to reading, for boys anyway. If a guy wants to stay in class, and doesn’t want to skip, he is open to ridicule, at least from some. It isn’t considered cool to get an education, and the temptation to be out earning cash is seen as far more enticing than sitting in a classroom. In Vietnam though, education is valued, and it is treated with respect, because it is the only way to get ahead.

Reducing the stigma associated with reading needs to be done before kids get to school, and ultimately rests on the parents. If you wait until your child has already fallen so far behind the rest of the class, then the temptation to drop out and do something they can do easily is too strong. But if the importance of reading is instilled in childhood, then school will be easier, and dropping out will not be a first port of call to deal with struggling to keep up with others in the class. Parents need to treat education with the same value that it is treated with in Vietnam, by reading to and with their children and making it completely unacceptable to cut class or drop out at the first possible chance.

Changing attitudes to reading can help to drastically change the picture of functional illiteracy in the future. In Washington D.C currently, almost one third of adults, are illiterate. However, only 8% of these people, are seeking help. Victoria Beckham even once (at the height of Spice Girls fame, when she was a role model for millions of pre-teen girls), boasted about never having read a book in her life. How has that become something to be proud of, or even admitted to?  To reduce the stigma for kids that is associated with reading, and not being able to read for adults, it needs to be more socially acceptable to seek help with reading in adulthood and adults need to set a better example for their kids, by making reading a part of life. Perhaps then, future generations will not have to make it to adulthood without being able to read.

Not being able to read though has more tangible consequences than embarrassment, or ridicule. It (obviously) drastically reduces employability and earning potential. 3 quarters of people who rely on welfare, cannot read above a fourth grade level.  Workers with a high school diploma or less are much less likely than people with post graduate education, to have sufficient retirement savings and are much more likely to live in poverty than those who have achieved a postgraduate qualification. According to the United States Department of Education, 60% of prison inmates are functionally illiterate as are over 85% of juvenile inmates. Almost half of these juvenile inmates lived in poverty. The link to breaking the cycle of poverty and crime, is education. But how?l

Spending on public schools has more than doubled in the last 15 years, but the rate of illiteracy has barely changed, and is actually increasing by 2.2 million every year. Clearly, the system isn’t working. Only 30 American states even require high school graduates to be able read at an eighth grade level. How is anyone expected to go onto a postgrad education if they have gone all the way through school without being able to read sufficiently? How did nobody notice that they couldn’t read, when almost 20% of students can be classified as functionally illiterate by the time they graduate?

It is shocking to think that so many people can slip through the cracks and we need to make some drastic changes, both in society as a whole, and within families, to try and reverse the trend. To steal from Will.i.Am at the Super Bowl, ‘Obama, let’s get these kids educated’.

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