The State of Literacy Today

By Penni Wild
Executive Director of New Jersey Reads

Boy reading a book“The word is not just a sound or a written symbol. The word is a force; it is the power you have to express and communicate, to think, and thereby to create the events in your life.”Don Miguel Ruiz

Today, our nation faces an epidemic that is destructive to our future. The disease is functional illiteracy. According to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), it has overtaken one-third of America’s children by the fourth grade — including two-thirds of African-American students and almost half of all children in the inner cities.

The basic definition of literacy is the ability to read and write. So the basic definition of illiteracy is the inability to read and write. Beyond the basic definitions, there is significance in the shocking statistics about the functionally illiterate. What illiteracy means is that millions may not be able to understand the directions on a medicine bottle, or be able to read their telephone bill, make correct change at a store, find and keep a job, or read to a child.

Illiteracy has long been viewed as a social and educational issue – someone else’s problem. However, more recently we have come to understand the economic consequences of the lack of literacy skills for America and American business.

In addition, as reported in the 1986 publication entitled Making Literacy Programs Work: A Practical Guide for Correctional Educators (for the U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Corrections), one-half of all adults in federal and state correctional institutions cannot read or write at all. Only about one-third of those in prison have completed high school.

The reasons for illiteracy are as varied as the number of non-readers. The adult non-reader may have left school early, may have had a physical or emotional disability, may have had ineffectual teachers or simply may have been unready to learn at the time reading instruction began.

Because they are unable to help their children learn, parents who can’t read often perpetuate the inter-generational cycle of illiteracy. Without books, newspapers or magazines in the home and a parent who reads to serve as a role model, many children grow up with severe literacy deficiencies. Clearly, there is no single cause of illiteracy.

Let us all do what we can to make illiteracy not a part of the story of America today but a part of America’s past.