Anyone Can Read Now
The extent and seriousness of English functional illiteracy exceeds your worst NIGHTMARE,
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3. Why We Do Not See the Extent of the Problem
Why the Size of the Problem Is Unrecognized
Many readers may have difficulty believing the extent of the problem of illiteracy. Although these readers may not be able directly to dispute the figures, they can quote the clichés, "There are lies, damned lies, and statistics" and "Figures don't lie, but liars figure." More charitably they may simply say, "You can prove almost anything if you quote only part of the figures and quote them in a certain way. There is probably some sort of trick to the figures."
There is one "trick" to the figures, if you can call it that: the figures refer to functional illiteracy. If, however, people read so poorly that they cannot get by in life as well as they should, their reading ability is of little value. Besides this explanation of functional literacy, there are seven more major reasons why the extent of illiteracy is not widely known.
The Hidden Illiterates Among Us
Today there are many who pass as literate, although they aren't. These people are known as "passers." We might be surprised, for example, at how many businessmen and others carry a newspaper only to make people believe they can read. Illiterates seldom look any different. Also, you can't identify an illiterate person by talking with one. Many illiterates are knowledgeable and eloquent speakers. They just didn't gain their knowledge or eloquence through reading.
Passers are significantly helped by real estate zoning laws which essentially keep lower income illiterates separated from higher paid literate workers and by the natural economic and cultural separation that occurs in any group of people. Differences in the knowledge and abilities required to perform many jobs separates employees who can perform the job from those who cannot. Many recreational activities result in separating those who are highly literate from those who are not. Those who can read are more likely to be close associates with others who can read and vice versa.
Passing can even occur within closely knit families. Many parents can conceal their inability to read from their children, especially if their spouse can read and will cover for them. Spouses often help their non-reading mates with reading tasks necessary for employment, beginning with the employment application form. If something occurs in the workplace which threatens to expose them as non-readers, they often simply disappear. They dread the embarrassment of being "found out."
Anyone who doubts these conclusions should read Tom Harkin's 1998 book, The Millionaire's Secret (he could not read until many years after becoming a millionaire) or John Corcoran's book, The Teacher Who Couldn't Read. Mr. Corcoran graduated from Texas Western College in 1961 with a degree in education. He admits that he cheated on tests in college — although he states in his book, "I am not advocating cheating." He had gotten into college without taking entrance exams because he had an athletic scholarship.
Amazingly, he became a teacher of tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grades in California, where he taught for eighteen years, without being able to read! He taught social studies, typing, history, physical education, and one year he even taught English. Although his wife thought for twenty-five years that he could read, even if he couldn't read well, she didn't know that he could hardly read at all until she overheard him trying to read a simple child's story to their three-year-old. It was not until then that she came to understand the emotional pain he had been living with all those years. He suffered emotional pain caused by feeling there was something wrong with him which prevented him from learning, by having to develop so many coping methods to hide his illiteracy, and by feeling alienated from his associates who could read.
Mr. Corcoran told of how all through grade school and high school his teachers never once heard him read or spell a word correctly, and yet they continued to call on him to read and spell as if they hadn't noticed. Throughout his public school years, not one teacher ever offered the one-on-one help that he so desperately needed, perhaps out of fear that, like so many of his previous teachers, they would be unable to help him, or because they were busy with other tasks. He explained that the U.S. is in denial — the public in general and teachers in particular are too embarrassed to admit the scope of our illiteracy problem.
Mr. Corcoran said that, to hide his embarrassment over being unable to read, he became the class clown "having too much fun to waste time on learning to read." He said that other nonreaders he knew were just as disruptive. As testimonial letters for i.t.a. (initial teaching alphabet) in Sir James Pitman's book, Alphabets and Reading, point out, the frustration of feeling stupid or inferior usually results in discipline problems. Students would rather be considered a tough troublemaker not interested in reading than be seen as trying and failing to learn. Mr. Corcoran explained that being unable to read causes very low self- esteem, and the only way to build up the nonreaders' self-esteem is to teach them to read! As he stated it, "A crying child begs, 'Tell them not to hurt us anymore — teach us to read!' " Mr. Corcoran said he feels strongly that every American who can read — in particular, every teacher — has a moral obligation to help their fellow citizens learn to read.
When Mr. Corcoran was forty-eight years old he finally decided to try, once more, to learn to read. It took a little over one year of one-on-one tutoring to bring him to the equivalent of an eighth grade education. He then went through four years of self study and then another hundred hours of intensive training to bring him to a college level of skill.
Financial differences resulting in separating readers from non-readers
Although functional illiterates can be expected to be among the most "financially challenged" — or in poverty — and therefore less well-hidden (as described above), if one of the adults in the family has a well-paying job, that adult can pull the family with a functionally illiterate in the family above the poverty line. Similarly, most low-income families receive financial assistance from government agencies, relatives not living with the family, friends, and charities.
The Grade-Level Completion Deception
Many people assume that if someone has completed high school, or even grade school, they must have learned to read and learned other things they were taught. Teachers and education experts know that this is not always true. Having sat it out for twelve years of schooling does not guarantee that students learn even a small portion of what they are exposed to. A January 9, 1998 report in The Salt Lake Tribune verifies this:
The Silent Minority
Illiterates are a silent minority. They do not write to their legislators. They can't. Out of embarrassment they do not lobby in their behalf. They don't want to be known as a part of the illiterate minority. Community and cultural leaders of groups with large proportions of non-readers do not like to call attention to these members' illiteracy. They fear this will give their "enemies" (racists, the "elitist" wealthy, or other class-conscious persons) ammunition to use against them. Since they are silent, they (like the reading majority) do not realize that millions of others are in the same condition. If they knew, they might be less embarrassed to stand up for what is best for them.
Self-Esteem Teaching in Public Schools
Perhaps the most successful teaching imparted to present-day students concerns self-esteem. Despite the true performance, U.S. adults and children tend to overestimate their scholastic abilities. The 1993 U.S. Department of Education Adult Literacy in America report stated that among the forty to forty-four million adults with the most limited skills, roughly fourteen million admitted they could not read or write well, and only about six million admitted to needing help with any tasks requiring literacy. In short, they felt good about what is actually very poor performance. (http://nces.ed.gov/pubs93/93275.pdf)
An earlier report by the U.S. Department of Education quoted students who were asked to rate their abilities in math and science; 68 percent said they were "good at math." (U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Educational Statistics, International Assessment of Educational Progress, A World of Differences, 1989) These were students who had just ranked near the bottom in international scholastic testing in science and math.
The U.S. Census Reports
Many believe that the U.S. is a highly literate society because of the official U.S. Census Bureau reports. The 1970 and 1980 census reports showed America to be 99 percent and 99.5 percent literate, respectively. In the interest of national pride, our governmental leaders like to present us as highly literate. Also, it is in the short-term interest of teachers and education officials to believe and promote belief in these figures. Conscious deception may not be taking place, but let's look at exactly how the Census Bureau obtained these figures.
The Census Bureau included questions about literacy in each census from 1840 to 1930. Many of those most knowledgeable about U.S. literacy believe that literacy began to drop in 1963 and has been declining ever since. The Census Bureau reintroduced questions about literacy in 1970 at the insistence of the military.
In the 1970 census the only question asked about literacy was on grade completion. The Census Bureau considered those with fifth-grade completion or higher to be literate. A little more than 5 percent reported less than a fifth-grade education. For some reason, the Census Bureau decided that 80 percent of these could read, so they reported 99 percent literacy.
In 1980 the Census Bureau mailed out forms and based most of their calculations upon written responses to questions about grade completion. In addition they used a small sample of home visits and telephone interviews. They asked people what grade they had completed. If the answer was "Less than fifth grade," they asked if the person could read and write. They then added the unsubstantiated answer to their record as a fact. This technique of determining literacy is quite certain to underestimate illiteracy for the following reasons:
1. Illiterates would not respond to written forms, and their family members — likely also to be illiterate — would not either.
2. Because of unemployment or low-paying jobs, fewer illiterates have telephones.
3. The underprivileged poor, and especially illiterates, may feel they are being singled out like criminals. They therefore have cause to distrust salespersons, bill collectors, or strangers knocking on their door seeking information — especially if the answers to the questions would be embarrassing. Home visits by Census Bureau officials who are not known by the person answering the door cannot be expected to yield accurate information under such circumstances.
4. Grade-level completion does not equal grade-level competence in many cases.
5. Those who have no permanent address, no phone number, no post office box, or no regular job — a condition shared by almost six million people, most of whom are functionally illiterate — often are not counted. They can't be found by the Census Bureau in time for the census. (Jonathan Kozol, Illiterate America, 1985, pp. 37-39)
How the Media Helps Hide the Problem
Anne C. Lewis, a freelance writer on education concerns, says there are "two big problems" the press makes in its coverage of illiteracy. The first mistake is confusing adult illiteracy problems with problems in the public schools. It is typical to blame the adult literacy problems on the schools and then go no further — as if fixing the blame will somehow result in solving the problem. Blaming the schools accomplishes nothing because, she pointed out, roughly 70 percent of the workforce in the year 2000 was already in the workforce and therefore permanently out of public schools. Furthermore, she says, thirty million or more Americans read so poorly they could "bring the whole economy crashing down." With the rapidly accelerating technology in the workplace and its demands, for example, for reading the operating manuals and for retraining, previous levels of illiteracy are no longer acceptable. She says the press rarely makes this known.
The second mistake in illiteracy coverage in the press is that — far too often — it is only concerned with boring stories of an occasional adult illiterate who can now read thanks to the efforts of some selfless volunteer. This type of coverage too often lulls the public into believing that is all there is to the problem of adult illiteracy. (Anne C. Lewis, special to the Baltimore Evening Sun, "Press Misses Scary Story in Failing to Cover Literacy Adequately," The Salt Lake Tribune, September 14, 1989, p. A17, col. 2-3.)
Business, media, and governmental leaders who are most aware of the problem, however, know there is more to it. They do not devalue the seriousness of illiteracy in the U.S. For example:
An ill-educated citizenry threatens the United States' ability to remain competitive in world markets more than any of the other more frequently cited causes of unproductive work places.
A big part of the reason people do not realize the seriousness of the literacy problem is the way the media handles the reporting of scientific or statistical studies. Since reporters are journalists, not statisticians or mathematicians, and since the reporters are almost always under time pressures to get their report out (before someone else reports it and it is no longer "news"), reporters often read only the Executive Summary of lengthy reports. In any case, journalists seldom do a careful study of the entire report, much less a serious mathematical analysis of data in a study. The 1993 Adult Literacy in America study was a 150 page report. The April 2002 version of the report was even longer: 199 pages. In the case of this study, a simple mathematical analysis of the data was required to understand the true seriousness of the findings of the study.
The New York Times article about the 1993 study gave an explanation of why increasing our literacy rate is important: "The overall education level of Americans has increased in terms of schooling and even in fundamental literacy. But the demands of the workplace simultaneously have vastly increased. We simply are not keeping pace with the kinds of skills required in today's economy." The article also gave an explanation of why literacy is a problem for so many people: "Insufficient education and a growing number of adults whose first language is not English were important reasons that the scores were so low." They failed to mention, however, that the interviewees were carefully chosen to be an accurate representation of the entire U.S. population at the time of the study. The article also misquoted the study as saying it indicated that there were 40 to 44 million adults in Level 1 literacy (the lowest literacy level), "an 40 million" [sic] in Level 2, 61 million in Level 3, 11 million in Level 4, and "up to 40 million" in Level 5. Page 17 of the 2002 version of the study shows the true figures to be, Level 1: 42.0 million (22.0% of the 191 million U.S. adults in 1993), Level 2: 50.9 million (26.7%), Level 3: 60.5 million (31.7%), Level 4: 31.2 million (16.3%), and Level 5: 6.4 million (3.3%). The most serious failing of the article is that it did not quantify the seriousness of the literacy problem. It merely began the article by stating: "Nearly half of the nation's 191 million adult citizens are not proficient enough in English to write a letter about a billing error or to calculate the length of a bus trip from a published schedule."(William Celis 3D, "Study Says Half of Adults in U.S Lack Reading and Math Abilities," The New York Times, September 9, 1993, p. 1)
An article by a Washington Post writer, covering the same study, began the article by stating: "Nearly half of all adult Americans read and write so poorly that it is difficult for them to hold a decent job, according to the most comprehensive literacy study ever done by the U.S. government." This raised questions of what constitutes a "decent job," exactly how many people are affected, how accurate was the study, and what were the statistical procedures to ensure accuracy, leading to the "engineering study" of the report on page 2 of this website. This engineering study found that although the Washington Post writer's statement was true, in effect it minimized the seriousness of the problem.(Mary Jordan, writer for the Washington Post, Nearly Half of Adults in America Lack Necessary Literacy Skills, Study Says," The Salt Lake Tribune, September 9, 1993, p. A1, col. 2-3.)
Finally, this is an age in which we see one kind of crisis or another on TV nearly every day. As a result, we have a tendency to suffer from sensory overload. We learn to ignore or disbelieve much of the bad news because the world goes on with little visible effect. Also, far too often a radio or TV report we hear will dispute the seriousness or the truth of the previous day's report.
However, the extreme seriousness of our illiteracy problem should prevent us from letting other crises dull our senses to this one. We can't afford to ignore the facts. We need to ask ourselves, "Can we, as a nation, keep ignoring a problem affecting our competitiveness in world markets and the health and well-being of over one-third of our people?"
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