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Illiteracy in the USA

One may think that the literacy rate in the United States should be high. After all, the United States is a big player in worldwide economics and is often regarded as a global leader in both politics and economic industries. In many ways, it is one of the prime countries in the world o live in – the land of opportunities.

However, these achievements do little to affect the truth of America’s literacy rate. The literacy rate in the United States has been at a plateau over the past decade. 32 million Americans, or 14 percent of the population, is illiterate. These are not necessarily people that have never had an education either – 19 percent of high school graduates are actually unable to read. Even if they can recognize letters and words, they may not be able to read directions on a sign, instructions on a label or a letter, much less write anything. These people are termed “functionally illiterate”.

Illiteracy rates spike up among the poor, those with foreign-born parents, those with special needs, those tried in juvenile court cases and prison inmates – but these are not the only ones. In New York City, a college entrance examination found that 79.3 percent of applicants lacked the basic reading, writing and mathematics skills they should have learned in high school. Overall, more than one fifth of the United States population cannot read above the fifth grade level, a shocking statistic considering how advanced America is supposed to be.

There are a few causes of illiteracy in the United States.

Firstly, the school system may be inadequate in teaching those with special needs or learning impairments. Although most children will pick up the ability to read by the time they are a few years old, some are slower in development and require assistance to develop reading abilities. However, this issue is not always recognized in homes or schools, where children may go through the entire education system without ever having their needs met. This happened to a girl called Yamilka, who had graduated from high school in New York when she was 21 – while only knowing eight letters of the alphabet. As an immigrant with learning disabilities, she and her brother never attended elementary school, due to family problems while they were back in their home country of the Dominican Republic. Additionally, they came from a family with a low education background, so nobody was around to enforce reading in their early years. When they moved to New York and began attending public schools, it took years for educators to recognize that the siblings had learning difficulties, resulting in Yamilka finishing high school while still remaining illiterate. Eventually, she won a case against the city, who had to pay $120,000 in funding her private tutoring.

As in this example, one’s family background also plays an important role in literacy as it affects their exposure to language from an early age. Children from an educated family will have heard at least 30 million words or utterances by the time they turn three, on average. In contrast, children from families with little education background hear only 10 million utterances by the same age. Of all American families, one in four children grow up without learning how to read. If they are still unable to read by the time they are in third grade, they will be four times as likely to drop out of school. It is also important that the family continues to foster good reading habits as the child grows up. Parents with low education are less likely to encourage reading, leading to a child’s reading abilities stagnating past the fourth or fifth grade.

While illiteracy generally has the same implications in the United States as it does in any other country, there are a few differences that make it even tougher to be illiterate in America. For one, almost every job in the United States requires one to at least be able to read. These days, everything has to be filled out on paper or even online before anyone can get a job. Even if the job itself required no literacy, the inability to read forms and clauses, write an application or even get around by reading signboards severely impairs the illiterate. While people with low literacy skills may find some limited jobs they can take on in other countries, it is almost impossible to get employed in the United States if you are illiterate.

Low literacy also results in more health-related incidents, especially in a developed country such as the United States. The illiterate are unable to understand written warnings and precautions, leading to a greater chance that they may involve themselves in risk. Annually, $73 million goes to direct healthcare expenditures as a result of low literacy-related accidents. In a 2012 report by the World Literacy Foundation, it was observed that there is a link between low literacy skills and accidents incurred in the workplace. Employees with poor literacy were more likely to get involved in workplace accidents, disease, injuries, financial losses or death. This puts not only themselves but also their co-workers at risk, increases the expenditures on medical bills, increases the absenteeism rate and thus negatively affects the productivity of a company.

Child marriage, a common problem in third world countries suffering from high illiteracy rates, has been deemed a violation of human rights in the United States. It still takes place today, but is less likely to occur as a direct result of illiteracy compared to other countries. However, the chances are still higher that an illiterate girl might have children in her adolescent years, and not know how to take care of them. Other concerns regarding illiteracy and childcare are as relevant to the United States as they are in other parts of the world. A young mother with a low literacy level is less likely to have the knowledge to take care of her children, resulting in increased risk of child mortality. Additionally, since illiteracy frequently passes from parent to child, having illiterate parents increases the chances that the children will be slow to start reading, continuing the next generation of illiteracy.

Research has also established a relationship between crime and illiteracy. It was found that 85 percent of juveniles in court are functionally illiterate, while 70 percent of prison inmates in the United States can only read at the fourth grade level and below. The more educated someone is, the more likely they can find a decent paying job, and the more likely they will care about being a good member of society. On the other hand, those who are poorly educated may be more inclined to commit crimes. They may also be wrongly accused for offenses and lack the ability to clear their names because they cannot read or write.

As the only free-market Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) country with a literacy rate that is getting poorer by each younger generationIlliteracy, it is undoubtable that something needs to be done to address this shocking statistic in the United States. 

Author: Kelly Felder


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