Anyone Can Read Now
The extent and seriousness of English functional illiteracy exceeds your worst NIGHTMARE,
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4. Seriousness of the Problem
Tom and Cindy were proud of their apartment. It wasn't much, but it was the best they had ever been able to afford. Their two young sons finally had a place to live and thrive. They had moved in during the summer two years ago. Emily, the new joy of their life, was a happy, healthy three-month old. Now it was winter and bitterly cold outside and they have been evicted — not for nonpayment of their rent but, according to the manager, because Emily's crying had disturbed the neighbors. The manager told them their rental contract they signed allowed tenants to be evicted if neighbors complained about another tenant's noise. His real reason was that he planned to renovate the apartment and raise the rent to an amount he knew Tom would never be able to afford. But Tom and Cindy didn't know. They couldn't read the contract — or much of anything else. They suspected that the manager was lying, but they so dreaded being exposed as illiterate that they would not protest and have their illiteracy made known to a few friends they had made in the nearby apartments. Instead, they meekly sought shelter in the downtown rescue mission again until they could find another, very scarce, low-rent apartment.
George was their best janitor. He had worked for the cleaning company for four years and was so willing to do any job that the common expression, "Let George do it," definitely applied to him. Even though he hated working the night shift, he was a hard worker because this was the first job he had been able to find to support his family in over two years. But now, George has just been fired. His boss left him a note giving him special clean-up instructions. George can read a few words but could not read enough of the words in the note to do the job he was so eager to do.
The three children sitting around the table are crying. Jane, their mother, is so exasperated, she feels like crying too. After opening the large can of Crisco she just brought home and excitedly placed upon the table, she had to explain to her hungry children that it does not contain the fried chicken pictured on the front. Jane cannot read. Like many in her condition, when she returned from the grocery store, the meager wages she earned at her low-paying sewing job were gone. There is nothing left to go back and buy something to cook in her year's supply of Crisco.
Frank and Jenny usually didn't stray very far from home. They could not read the street signs and highway markers very well and often feared getting lost, but this was a special occasion. Their only child was celebrating his seventh birthday. His adoring parents agreed to take him to the county fair in a nearby town a few miles from their home on the Great Plains. There were very few towns in this rural area, but friends had told them how to get to their destination. After driving for what seemed like a very long time, they realized that the directions they had been given were inadequate. They were running very low on gasoline and their son began having another of his frequent attacks of asthma. To their horror, his medicine did not help the situation. There were no houses or businesses in sight. They had brought their cell phone and knew how to dial 911, but they did not know how to read the street signs and highway markers well enough to explain their location to the emergency operator.
These and hundreds of similar stories occur around us every day, but we usually do not see them. There are several reasons this is true. The most frequent reason is that, as a result of shame and embarrassment, those who are very poor readers are extremely good at hiding their condition. In fact, in the most extensive study of illiteracy ever commissioned by the U.S. government, almost all of the adults in the two lowest of five literacy levels claimed, when asked, that they were good readers or very good readers and had little need for help with tasks requiring reading.
Millions of nonreaders and poor readers continually endure a multitude of problems and life-threatening dangers besides those shown above. Jonathan Kozol, in his 1985 book, Illiterate America, gives a fuller explanation than is presented here. A thoughtful, sensitive person cannot read Let's End Our Literacy Crisis, Revised Edition or Kozol's book without feeling compassion for illiterates over their physical, mental, emotional, medical, and financial problems resulting from their illiteracy. Kozol gives actual examples of people he knows and loves who have experienced the problems he describes.
The method of presenting the data on this page requires special consideration. It is important that you consider what effects the problems described would have upon you instead of upon some nameless, faceless person you are not sure exists. It is always easier to ignore serious problems if they aren't happening to us or our loved ones.
Unlike the above examples, the following will be a brief, matter-of-fact explanation to avoid overstating the importance of any one problem illiterates must constantly endure and to avoid charges of demagoguery. Keep in mind, however, that many simple tasks we take for granted are beyond the ability of many illiterates.
1. Jobs lost upon discovering illiteracy. Today, even the most menial jobs require the ability to read. (Kozol, p. 27)
2. Low pay for low reading ability. This is explained on page 2. Extent of the Problem.
3. Pay tied to reading ability, not social class. Researchers Carmen Hunter and David Harman state, "Those who have completed high school have incomes about double those who have not completed grade school, and half again higher than those with an eighth grade education. This situation prevails among all sectors of the population: men and women, white and black, and all age groups." (Carmen Hunter and David Harman, Adult Illiteracy in the United States, 1989, p. 37)
4. Unemployment versus reading ability. See page 2. Extent of the Problem.
5. Unemployment versus retraining. Of the eight million unemployed, the U.S. Department of Labor estimates that 75 percent lack the skills necessary to be retrained for high-tech jobs. (Edward Klein, "Everything Would Be Better If More People Could Read," PARADE, May 21 1989, p. 5)
The inability to read well enough to hold a job providing an adequate income is an obvious contributing factor to crime.
6. Percentage of functionally illiterate juvenile delinquents. Among juveniles appearing before the court, 85 percent are functionally illiterate. (Kozol, p. 5)
7. Percentage of non-reading first-time offenders. Florida Judge Charles Phillips stated, "Eighty percent of the new criminals who pass my desk would not be here if they had graduated from high school and could read and write."
8. Non-reading prison inmates. Up to 80 percent of prison inmates are non-readers. (Florida Judge Charles Phillips, cited by the Washington Post, November 25, 1982)
9. Education level among prison inmates. From a recent census of prisoners more than twenty-five years of age, 75 percent are not high school graduates and 35-42 percent of them had not completed ninth grade, as compared to 38 percent of the total adult population not high school grads. (Hunter and Harman, p. 51)
Standard of Living
10. Income level versus education level. In 2000 the median annual earnings were, for men: bachelor degree or more, $48,000; some college, $33,000; high school graduate, $29,000; high school dropout, $20,500 and for women: bachelor degree or more, $34,500; some college, $25,000; high school graduate, $20,000; high-school dropout, $14,500. (Murray Rockowitz, et. al., Baron's GED High School Equivalency Exam, 14th Edition, 2007, p. 3)
11. Education level versus percentage of families on welfare. There are twice as many on welfare with less than a sixth-grade education than there are with six to eight years of schooling. There are almost four times as many on welfare who have less than a sixth-grade education than there are who have completed nine to eleven years of school. (Hunter and Harman, p. 43)
12. Victimization of nonreaders by their landlords. Even the most basic needs are more uncertain for nonreaders and poor readers. An apartment to live in and fuel to keep it warm in winter are uncertain if the one signing the lease or receiving past due bill notices can't read. Even loss of a place to live in winter is not as dreaded as the loss of dignity and self-respect.
13. Lack of understanding of insurance coverage. Insurance policies cannot be used for insuring against losses, the way they should be, for illiterate policyholders. This is true if the policyholders do not remember (or more likely were not told) all the details of the insurance coverage and cannot read the policy for themselves.
14. Lack of checking account equals loss of interest payments. Those who cannot read and write seldom keep their money in checking or savings accounts. Therefore they do not have the advantage of drawing any interest on the money they use for the daily necessities of life. (Kozol, pp. 24, 25, 28)
15. Democracy is denied to nonvoters and uninformed voters. One of a citizen's most basic rights is the right to vote. Most illiterates either do not vote or cast uninformed votes. Their knowledge of candidates is usually limited to paid political radio and television announcements and to events newsworthy enough to deserve air time. They usually have no other way of learning the facts about a candidate on issues that are most likely to affect them. They can't vote on issues that are in their best interests. Democracy, for them, is an unreachable ideal.
16. Loss of citizens' rights through lack of knowledge of them. Illiterates often do not know and exercise their rights as citizens. They can't read notices they receive from the Internal Revenue Service or from the welfare office. They must learn of their rights, deadlines they face, and things they must do by word of mouth or from the radio or television. They seldom know all their options. They must depend on people they often have reason to distrust to keep them informed. The rights that are written somewhere as theirs are just a hollow mockery if they don't know about them.
17. Denial of the right to an education. A common present-day expectation of almost every U.S. citizen is that they will receive a public school education. This, more than any other "right," is of great importance to illiterates. It is understandable if school officials, after reviewing the records, decide that certain students are wasting a teacher's time and the school's budget for school materials. Believing that these students are not worthy of a teacher's time and are taking up space that more deserving students could use can be devastating to a teenager's self-respect. Such students drop out of school instead of insisting upon their right to an education. It is easier for all concerned to believe the student has failed than that the educational system didn't do what it should for the student. In addition, parents, whether they can read or not, often are embarrassed and frustrated over difficulties their children have in school.
18. Children of the functionally illiterate lose educational rights. Children do not receive all the benefits that are due them from the school system if their parents can't read. Illiterate parents do not read letters from their children's teachers. Illiterate parents cannot study materials designed to help their children prepare for college, nor can they help their children with homework. They can't show their children the importance of an education by going to the classroom or by meeting the teacher. They fear they will embarrass themselves or their children with their inability to read or understand basic school subjects.
19. Embarrassment over the inability to read to children who request it. Illiterates must often suffer the embarrassment of having young children know their parent(s) can't read. For example, parents may try to help their first grader with their schoolwork by buying children's storybooks. When the children insist that their mother read the book, she may try to "fake it" by making up a story from the pictures. It then hurts to be told, "Mommy, that's not right." Even young children often know their parents can't read. (Kozol, p. 23-25, 28)
20. The cost of truancy. Truancy is now such a serious problem that ordinances have been enacted allowing police in many U.S. cities to impose a $500 fine or thirty days in jail for the parents and suspension of drivers licenses of the students. Truancy costs include the cost of imposing curfews in many cities and, for example, the costs of over-time pay for police in New Orleans. Enforcement of truancy laws in San Jose, California, increased police payroll costs by $1 million. Most truancy occurs because the truants have failed to learn to read. Better education significantly reduces both truancy and other forms of juvenile delinquency. When the students are better able to instruct and entertain themselves with reading they do not require such vast costs for social programs designed to keep them out of trouble. (Sanford S. Silverman, Spelling For the 21st Century, 2003, pp. 37, 38)
Basic Lifestyle Choices
21. Restaurant roulette: stick to basics or eat detested food. Illiterates can''t always order what they want when they go to a restaurant. They may have to choose by pointing to something on the menu. If there are no pictures, they may not know what they have ordered until it arrives — and it may be something they do not like. They can't tell from a menu in the window what the price of items will be before they go inside. They must either order something basic they are sure the restaurant will have or depend upon the person they are with to order for them. Their choice is another hamburger and cola or something ordered for them that they hate.
22. Supermarket roulette: what is in this can? Illiterates are denied the choice of less expensive generic or unadvertised brands of food when grocery shopping. They have to buy products based on pictures on the package or buy labels they recognize from TV commercials. Even many nationally advertised brands are beyond their purchase. For example, how could they buy Campbell's soup and get what they want when every can looks the same? Most illiterates so dread prejudice — a dread that is all too often justified — that they will not ask for help in the supermarket. They therefore waste money on household items they can't use or on foods they detest.
23. Expense, time, and stress of traveling to pay bills. Illiterates cannot manage checking accounts, so they seldom pay bills by mail. This means they must spend several hours each month in time-consuming and often expensive travel, an added cost for every payment they make.
24. The dangers of travel. Travel is often difficult for illiterates. They endure risks that most of us could never imagine. Although they may learn to decipher many traffic signs and symbols, street signs they have never seen before are a complete mystery to them. Bus stop and subway station names are equally meaningless. Imagine your frustration at being lost in a foreign country with a language you know nothing about. A similar frustration or fear usually keeps most illiterates close to home.
25. Lack of choice of TV programs. Illiterates do not even have the luxury of deciding in advance what TV shows they will watch. They stick with weekly programs they know come on at a certain time. Alternatively, they find what they can by flipping through the channels, frequently missing programs that would be of more interest to them.
26. Inability to follow food preparation instructions. Illiterates can't follow the food preparation instructions on the items they purchase. They may want to avoid the monotony of always having the same food or the criticism of being a lazy, unimaginative cook. There is a danger, however, in purchasing some new food item or in trying a new recipe by following a friend's oral instructions. They run a high risk of wasting food for which replacement would be difficult or impossible because of limited finances. Even government food handouts become a mockery. If the recipients cannot read instructions, they cannot make a tasty meal from the surplus cheese, noodles, and powdered milk, for example.
27. The dilemma of having to trust someone who is untrustworthy. There is an obvious outcome of the examples in this chapter. Illiterates do not have even the most basic lifestyle choices that the rest of us have. They must rely upon others to choose for them. Because of their disability, illiterates can cite many times when wrong choices were made for them or times when they were cheated. They find themselves in the dilemma of having to trust people that they are not sure can be trusted. They are often paralyzed by not knowing the right word for the right thing at the right time. It is often a terrifying feeling.
Dangers and Health Risks
28. Medicine bottle precautions. Illiterates can't read precautions on a medicine bottle. The expiration date for safe usage, possible allergic reactions, sedative effects, who should not take it, and dosages, thus may be a mystery to them.
29. Inability to read health pamphlets. Illiterates can't read health pamphlets and bulletins, and thus often do not know about the preventive health measures they describe. They often do not know, for example, the seven warning signs of cancer.
30. Inability to read product warnings. Illiterates can't read, for example, the warning sign on a pack of cigarettes. They may know that smoking is bad for them, but they can't read the details that would give them the determination to quit.
31. Unintended surgery through lack of understanding. Illiterates can't read waivers that they must sign before undergoing surgery, so they don't know their rights. They often do not understand the medical jargon and fear the unfamiliar atmosphere found in hospitals. They sometimes find, too late, that they've agreed to something that in the confusion was not adequately explained to them. Some women, for example, have found that by undergoing an unintended hysterectomy, they have forever been denied the basic privilege of motherhood.
32. Workplace injuries. Working with toxic chemicals can be a frightening job for anyone. It is especially so for someone who can't read package labels or the warning signs on the walls. The same is true regarding warning signs about machinery and other dangers. U.S. workers are more likely to be killed on the job than workers in other major industrialized countries (for example, thirty-six times more likely than in Sweden). One out of eleven U.S. workers will be killed or seriously injured at work.
33. Inability to use telephone directories. This example involves a simple task we often take for granted: looking up telephone numbers in the telephone book. Although some can find the name of a friend, far fewer have the sorting skills to use the yellow pages. Even the emergency numbers on the first page are beyond recognition for many of them. Even if illiterates can remember an emergency number they can call, they may still be in trouble. If they are away from home, the inability to read street signs may keep them from explaining their location well enough to get timely help, for example, for a child who is choking. (Kozol, pp. 14, 23-28)
34. Death Rate of Children Tied to Mother's Education. A 1999 study by the World Bank showed that the average death rate for children under five years old whose mothers had no education was 144 per 1000 live births. This dropped to 106 per 1000 for mothers with a primary education only and to 68 per 1000 when the mothers had some secondary education also. When the infant's caregiver cannot read the directions on baby formula or medications, a wrong guess can lead to injury or death of the child. We have a moral obligation to prevent such tragedies, and making the directions on baby formula and medications easier to read. Those who protest that it would be too costly should be reminded that this improvement to our educational system would pay for itself by increased national productivity and by avoidance of all the problems associated with illiteracy. (Silverman, p. 30)
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