Literacy is the ability to use symbols of language that are central to learning and comprehending—for the purposes of making and communicating meaning and knowledge. Put simply, it is the ability to read and write. Now more than ever before, literacy is extremely important in determining your success. It is no longer acceptable to just know the basics, either. Today’s technology and job market require a strong grasp on the English language. Literacy skills that were once expected of only top-tier graduates are now needed in almost any work place. Students need to be able to interpret and use a wide variety of information and texts and to be skilled at using them for problem solving, analysis, and collaboration. There is growing agreement that literacy is at the center of all learning and expectations for what it means to be literate are rising. It is important to make sure that we have a workforce that is well prepared with the literacy skills needed for the jobs of tomorrow.
The stakes are high. A 2012 analysis of how countries around the world are updating their education systems for the digital age notes that computers and machines can cost-effectively do the sorts of jobs that people with only basic knowledge and skills can do. This raises the demand for workers who can add value through applying complex thinking and communication skills to new problems and environments.
However, it is an uphill battle. It is critical that we promote literacy early on, otherwise there are dangerous implications. This is a big problem; in 2011, 68% of 4th graders in the US were reading at a below proficient level and 34% of those 4th graders were reading at a below basic level. As far as writing goes, in 2002, 73% of 4th graders were writing at a below proficient level. So who is illiterate in the US? The numbers differ by geographic locations, income levels, and race. In urban areas, 74% of city 4th graders scored below proficient reading level in 2011; suburban areas, this number was 63%; in rural areas, 65% of 4th graders scored below proficient; and in towns, 71% scored below. In terms of income, only 55% of fourth graders in moderate- and high-income families have less-than-proficient reading skills versus 83% of fourth graders in low-income families.
Our country is also experiencing changing demographics with an increase in non-English speakers. In 2011, there were 2,062,000 children in immigrant families who had difficulty speaking English while only 531,000 children in U.S. born families had difficulty speaking English. This translated into 93% of 4th grade English language learners scoring below proficient reading compared to 65% of non-English language learner 4th graders. This is an issue as 57.1 million people, which is 20% of the population, spoke a language other than English at home in 2009. This population is continuing to grow and having such a large number of them struggle with literacy could pose a problem to our country’s future as well as theirs.
What do these early reading problems mean for those students later on? The results are surprisingly drastic. Students who do not read proficiently by 3rd grade are four times more likely to not receive a high school diploma than proficient readers. This is because 3rd grade is an important pivot point in a child’s education, the time when students shift from learning to read and begin reading to learn. One in six children who are not reading proficiently in 3rd grade fail to graduate from high school on time, which is four times the rate for children with proficient third-grade reading skills. What’s worse is, for those who do not have even basic reading skills by third grade, the rate is nearly six times greater. While these struggling readers account for about a third of the students, they represent more than three-fifths of those who eventually drop out or fail to graduate on time.
Again, these graduation rates have different results for different races and income levels. About 31% of poor African-American students and 33% of poor Hispanic students who did not hit the 3rd grade proficiency mark failed to graduate. These rates are greater than those for White students with poor reading skills. Children who have lived in poverty and are not reading proficiently in third grade are about three times more likely to fail to graduate from high school than those who have never been poor. With these rates hitting minorities more harshly, the implications are dangerous. By 2023, it is projected that more than half of all children will be minorities and by 2050, 62% of the nation’s children will be minorities, up from 44% today. If 62% of our population is having these drastic literacy problems, it will be detrimental to our workforce and progression as a country. The education system needs to come up with ways to combat these problems now in order to decrease these rates that have the potential to affect over half of our population.
What can you do to help curb these low literacy rates? The answer is fairly easy: read! Most of the time, children just need someone to read to them and help them to read. In 2011-2012, there were 2,865,000 children ages 1 to 5 whose family members read to them less than 3 days a week. Start a free book club at your local community library and read to the children in the community. Remember, it is important to read to young kids and start a love of reading as early as possible.