Illiteracy in the U.S.

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A look at illiteracy levels in America and what one woman can do to help

On Sept. 8, the world celebrated the 50th anniversary of International Literacy Day, a holiday created to underscore the importance of eradicating illiteracy.

For the general American public, the word “illiteracy” evokes images of impoverished people and communities in the conventionally destitute nations of South Asia, West Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Hidden among us, however, is an unseen population of Americans struggling to read and write in a society renowned by many for its high standard of living.

In 2013, a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy revealed that 14 percent of adults nationwide are illiterate. That’s 32 million Americans who struggle with an incapacity that keeps them from having careers, using phones and computers, and reading books, newspapers and magazines. 32 million people walk into restaurants on a regular basis and are handed menus they can’t read – they travel on roads with street names and billboards they can’t understand and struggle to communicate with the world around them.


Illiteracy is tied inevitably to poverty. According to the Literacy Project Foundation, 46 to 51 percent of American adults have an income well below the poverty level because of their inability to read. Kathryn Starke, a literacy specialist and founder of Creative Minds Publications, emphasized the vulnerability of children, particularly underprivileged ones, to illiteracy.

“National reading tests show that while 66 percent of our 9-year-olds read below grade level, 80 percent of those 9-year-olds come from low-income schools,” she said.

Amy Moore, a teacher and educator in Richmond, Va., also stressed the role of poverty in education and literacy.

“In some of the low-income schools I worked in, you really had to get the students’ attention,” she said. “They had other things to worry about – some of them had children of their own. But when they got to trust you, they would work really hard. They applied themselves, and it was so rewarding to watch them grow. One day, I ran into a former student of mine, and he was applying to medical school. He told me he never would have been able to get there without me.”

Starke also works to create hope for inner-city schools in Richmond, where she provides students and teachers with tools and resources to inspire a love of reading and encourage literacy.

“We have got to provide opportunities for children to read at a very young age,” she said. “In life, you won’t be able to balance your checkbook, get a job, read a book for information, or even for pleasure, without a solid foundation in literacy.”

Starke emphasized the power of reading at home and in kindling a love of reading in children by starting with the adults. According to Starke, children from low-income homes who struggle to read often have parents who have the same issues.

“Children naturally want to read — it’s like riding a bike,” she said. “And parents want to see their children succeed. In all my time working for inner-city schools, I have never met a parent who does not want their child to succeed where they couldn’t. So, we need to create resources for kids, parents [and] grandparents. They should see the value in taking their kids to the library [and] in reading out loud to them.”

Starke tackles the issue of illiteracy by starting with the teachers.

“Elementary school teachers have to be proficient in all the subjects,” she said. “But you just can’t be good at everything. If a child happens to get the teacher who’s good at reading, then they’re lucky. But if you get the teacher who’s better at math or social studies, then your foundation in literacy is impacted. Teachers need to recognize that reading is important in every aspect of education; they need to understand the significance of literacy. Without reading, you can’t learn much else.”

Starke holds a master’s degree in literacy, but she said not all teachers are able to obtain those degrees. As a result, a lot of teachers need teaching, although it is sometimes difficult to convince educators to accept coaching, she said.

According to her impact report, Starke has collaborated with schools that within a year saw a 14 percent increase in standardized test scores and a 31 percent increase in third and fourth graders reading at grade level. She has also coached reading groups where a majority of those enrolled passed statewide standardized reading assessments for the first time in their educational careers.

International Literacy Day falls one day before the National Football League Kickoff, and that is no coincidence for Starke, who often uses sports to encourage reading.

“What I’m doing can be done everywhere,” Starke said. “I am simply providing resources and tools to help teach reading [and] to help build a community of competent teachers and literate students and parents. Illiteracy is an issue that we can overcome.”
 

Nidhi Sharma is a current student at the University of Richmond. She is a young, aspiring journalist working as a media intern for Creative Minds Publications in the hopes of spreading the word about the issue of illiteracy in the United States.

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