February 8, 2020

Several years ago, 1981 to be exact, the company I worked for was sold and ultimately liquidated.  I was given an opportunity to move to Ohio to join the engineering team at their headquarters.  I declined.  My wife and I had our children in great schools and all of our family was close by so we decided it would be best to “stay at home”.  This, of course, meant I needed to find a job with a company in the area. I did so.  I will not name the company because it is not relevant.

One afternoon I was asked to accompany one of the other employees to pick up gas cylinders used for oxy-acetylene cutting torches.  I won’t go into detail because that’s not the purpose for this post.  I had no idea as to where the supplier was so I thought that was the purpose for his riding along with me.  Boy was I wrong.  I was told that Joe (not his real name) had some difficulty with directions so I was given instructions in writing as to the location of the company; which made me even more suspicious.   Well, as it turned out, Joe was functionally illiterate. He simply could not read and eventually, he admitted it.  He was passed along year after year through grammar school and high school simply because they did not know what to do with him.  Here is a high school graduate, an adult, on the street not knowing how to read.  I discovered later he did know how to write his name but that was because someone taught him to do so.  That is just about all he could put to paper. 

With this in mind, let’s look at language and literacy rates in the United States.

As you can see from the graphic above:

  • An international reading assessment shows that the U.S. ranks twenty-third (23rd) in reading skills behind China, Estonia and Poland.
  • From 1992 to 2013, the percentage of 12th graders who scored below basic reading skills achievement increased from twenty percent (20%) to twenty-five percent (25%), while those at or above proficient decreased from forty percent (40%) to thirty-seven percent (37%).
  • The mean SAT verbal score among college-bound seniors decreased more than eight percent (8%) between 1968 and 2015.

The graphic above indicates that funding for literacy skills is low to very low.  Below we see that:

  • From 1992 to 2008, the percentage of U.S. residents who read for pleasure declined by eleven percent (11%).
  • Family members reading to children declined eight percent (8%).

From the graphic above, you can see that employers still value literacy and language skills.  Reading is fundamental in getting and keeping a job.

In the US, fourteen percent (14%) of the adult population is at the “below basic” level for prose literacy; twelve percent (12%) are at the “below basic” level for document literacy; and twenty-two percent (22%) are at that level for quantitative literacy.  This may not sound like a great number or percentage but looking at a U.S. population of 327.8 million people, this is about forty-six million people.  Now, if you back out infants you certainly get a smaller number but:

  • More than thirty (30) million adults in the United States cannot read, write, or do basic math above a third-grade level. — ProLiteracy
  • Children whose parents have low literacy levels have a seventy-two (72%) percent chance of being at the lowest reading levels themselves. These children are more likely to get poor grades, display behavioral problems, have high absentee rates, repeat school years, or drop out. — National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)
  • Seventy-five (75%) percent of state prison inmates did not complete high school or can be classified as low literate. — Rand Report: Evaluating the Effectiveness of Correctional Education
  • Low literacy is said to be connected to over $230 billion a year in health care costs because almost half of Americans cannot read well enough to comprehend health information, incurring higher costs. — American Journal of Public Health

CONCLUSIONS:  As we progress deeper and deeper into the “digital world” it becomes more necessary that we eliminate the lack of reading and communication skills or those even with marginal reading ability will be left behind.  In a world of 5-G, the “cloud”, AI, robotic systems, etc. a definite level of reading ability is an absolute must—a must.  WE MUST AND CAN DO BETTER.

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