Image © mussiera via Twenty20

Only half of Americans can read “proficiently”. Why?

Poor literacy puts you at an economic disadvantage.

Over the last couple of centuries, literacy rates - being able to read and write - have exploded across the world, especially in Western countries. This is universally seen as a Very Good Thing. Without literacy we wouldn’t have books, the Internet, road signs, or even this newsletter. However, a world seeped in literacy is harder to navigate for people who don’t have a strong grasp on that skill. That’s more common than you might think. In America, the richest country in the world, less than half of adults are “proficient” readers.

Employers care a great deal about literacy, so people who have a poor grasp of it are disproportionately likely to be unemployed or work in low-paid jobs. And this impact seems to fall particularly hard on already-disadvantaged groups: three-quarters of women with very low literacy skills have never been promoted, compared with 63 percent of men. (One reason for this is that roles that do not require high literacy are predominantly manual labour jobs, which women are underrepresented in.)

The literacy problems go beyond work. Struggling with the written word often means struggling to access essential information. Safety signs, legal documents, instruction packs … our society is full of things that assume a certain level of literacy in order to stop people from getting hurt or screwed over. On top of that, there’s the social stigma. Many people associate low literacy with stupidity, leaving people who struggle with it feeling isolated, ashamed and unhappy.

For all these reasons, many educators want to reexamine and improve the way literacy is taught in schools. In America, people think that one of the main reasons literacy rates aren’t where they should be is that many teachers don't use a phonic-based approach to learning. Phonics is when you match sounds to letters. There’s evidence it is the easiest way for children to learn to read. When Mississippi made it a key part of its curriculum it moved from 49th to 29th place in a national ranking of educational progression.

But not everyone agrees schools need more phonics. For one, lots of teachers struggle to teach it. For literate adults, phonics can seem counterintuitive. The Californian teaching exam, which tests mastery of phonics, has such a high failure rate that it’s been blamed for teacher shortages. Such shortages tend to particularly affect schools in poorer areas, because they are often viewed as less desirable places to work.

On a similar note, some people are concerned that a phonic literacy approach would be particularly tough on marginalised kids, including racial minorities. Children who do not achieve literacy proficiency may be held back a year (they were in Mississippi), and there is a worry that these children could disproportionally be poor kids and kids of colour.

Read our explainer on: educational institutions

Recent articles

Reader Comments