Even though the United States of America boasts 99% literacy rates according to the World Factbook, the statistics say something else. For instance, 37% of all children in the fourth grade read below basic levels, making them functionally illiterate. That's a huge portion of our future adult leaders having their education hampered by poor reading skills. Learning in schools is difficult to do without basic literacy skills, and teaching an illiterate child is just as hard. No matter how many resources you have, and whatever expert strategies you may employ, you can only go so far in teaching the child if he can't read.
Other statistics are just as surprising:
- The inability to read is correlated to cases of poverty, welfare dependence, lack of employment, and even criminal activity.
- While children in middle- to high-income families enjoy a healthy number of books in the household, 61% of children in low-income families have no books at all. This is especially startling as 37% of all American children live in low-income families.
- Children from low-income families have, on average, a 3,000-word listening vocabulary upon entering kindergarten. This pales in comparison to kids from middle-income families, who have an average of 20,000 words in their listening vocabulary.
- The probability of a child maintaining poor levels of literacy from the end of the first grade until the fourth grade is an astonishing 90%.
- The availability of reading materials in American households is a more powerful indicator of success in schools than the family's socio-economic status.
What's worse, these statistics continue into the child's adult life. According to several studies, 46 to 51% of the adult population in the United States lacks literacy skills to such a degree that they earn an annual income significantly lower than the poverty level. You can now see that the lack of literacy forms a vicious cycle - poverty can lead to illiteracy, and illiteracy can lead to poverty.
The literacy problem doesn't just lie in the ability to read. Reading rates for those who can read are drastically low. Roughly 1/3 of all Americans never read another book after graduating high school. 42% of all college students never read another book after completing their education. A startling 57% of all new books aren't even read to the end. These statistics show that even the ability to read doesn't make up for poor reading habits.
Thankfully, there are numerous resources to help combat this problem and improve literacy rates. The Department of Education (www.edu.gov), for example, has several programs that promote reading in schools and at home. Institutions like the National Center for Family Literacy (www.famlit.org) and the National Institute for Literacy (www.nifl.gov) provide teaching strategies and additional resources and statistics to help improve the country's literacy. Programs like Read Across America (www.nea.org/readacross/index.html) travel the nation advocating the importance of literacy among children and adults alike. With the continued support of these institutions and programs, and the proper use of the resources they provide, there is a large chance that future literacy statistics will be much, much better.