Unless you have read Jonathan Kozol’s 1985 book, Illiterate America or you have carefully analyzed the most comprehensive, statistically accurate study of U.S. adult illiteracy ever commissioned by the U.S. government, a five-year, $14 million study involving lengthy interviews of 26,049 U.S. adults, statistically balanced for age, gender, ethnicity, and location (urban, suburban, and rural in a dozen states across the U.S. and in several prisons) to represent the entire U.S. population, you undoubtedly do not realize the seriousness of the problem. Illiterates have developed numerous coping methods that make them very good at hiding their illiteracy. Several of your acquaintances may be — unknown to you — functionally illiterate.
A front page report in the New York Times on September 9, 1993 and a shorter article in the Washington Post on the same date, the day of release of the above-mentioned study, listed some of the details of the report, but did not mention the most serious problems found in the body of the report. These reports were evidently based upon the short “Executive Summary” of the report. Even though a follow-up report issued in 2006 showed no statistically significant improvement, there have been no other known references to this report in any known media source. Jonathan Kozol, in Illiterate America, explained why the official U.S. Census Bureau reports on literacy rate are inaccurate and explains that it is in the short-term best interests of political and educational authorities to downplay the seriousness of the English literacy problem.
It is in your best interest, however, to understand the seriousness of the problem and to take action because illiteracy has human suffering costs for the illiterates (at least 34 types of serious physical, mental, emotional, medical, and financial problems that we would consider catastrophes if they happened to us) and monetary costs for every American: (1) for the cost of government programs that illiterates use (from our taxes) and for the cost of truancy, juvenile delinquency, and crime directly related to illiteracy, and (2) for the increased cost of consumer goods as a result of functional illiterates in the workplace.
How does functional illiteracy cause serious problems for illiterates?
Here are four brief examples. Janitors have been fired because they cannot read an after-hours note with special clean-up instructions. Families have been evicted from their apartment — even in the coldest part of winter — when the apartment owner (who wants to raise the rent, but knows the present renters cannot afford the higher rent) falsely claimed that the rental contract allows eviction if a crying baby disturbs other tenants; evicted tenants who cannot read the contract will not challenge the apartment owner fearing their illiteracy will be exposed. The taking of medicines poses a danger to those who cannot read the instructions on the medicine bottles. Children who have medical emergencies, such as asthma, are in grave danger if the illiterate parents become lost because they cannot read the street signs; even if they have cell-phones they cannot tell the 911 operator their location when they visit a remote place if they cannot describe their location sufficiently to allow ambulance personnel to find them.
These and hundreds of similar “horror stories” occur all around us every day — most of them without our knowledge because functional illiterates are extremely good at hiding their illiteracy. About half of adult Americans are now functionally illiterate and must constantly endure permanent shame, anger, and despair, unable to lift themselves out of privation.
Although nearly every American can at least read a few words, if someone can only read 1200 to 1500 simple words they learned by sight, they are functionally illiterate. They cannot get by in our complex society as well as they should and must constantly endure at least thirty-four different kinds of serious physical, mental, emotional, medical, and financial problems. Many simple tasks we take for granted are impossible for illiterates. See Jonathan Kozol’s 1985 book, Illiterate America.
America’s Dirty Little Secret: How many Americans are now functionally illiterate?
The National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) reported in 2006 that 44% of adults in the study were in the two lowest of four reading levels (below basic and basic) and that 51% of those in the below basic level had given up looking for a job and 5% were unemployed, looking for work. The percentages of employed adults increased with each increase in reading ability. The 2006 report was a follow-up to the much more thorough 1993 NCES report, the most extensive study of illiteracy ever commissioned by the U.S. government. Employment statistics from the 1993 report were about the same as the 2006 report.
The 1993 study used five literacy levels instead of four as in the 2006 report and revealed several devastating facts about functional illiteracy that are not covered in the 2006 report. Most people don’t know these facts; there is no known reference to these facts in any national media.
The shocking NCES 1993 report titled “Adult Literacy in America,” shows that the average yearly earnings were: Level 1 (least literate), $2105; Level 2, $5225; Level 3, $9090, and Levels 4 and 5 combined, $16,311. The threshold poverty level for an individual in 1993 was $7363 per year. (See the U.S. Census Bureau’s Threshold Poverty report for 1993) Shockingly, 22.0 percent of U.S. adults were Level 1 and 26.7 percent were Level 2. This means 48.7 percent of U.S. adults had average annual earnings significantly below the poverty level largely because of their functional illiteracy.
We do not see 48 percent or more of U.S. adults in poverty because most households have more than one employed adult and because low-income households receive governmental assistance (from our taxes) and from family, friends, and charities. Even so, the 1993 NCES report showed that 31.2 percent of the adults in the two lowest literacy levels were in poverty (the report only showed poverty in each literacy level, but the combination of levels 1 and 2 can be easily calculated).
Although the 1993 NCES report did not show the combined poverty rate for literacy levels 3 through 5, it is easily calculated to be 10.1 percent. Since there are no provable differences in the interviewees except their literacy rates, this is a strong indication that about twice as many (deducting 10.1 percent which is not due to illiteracy from the 31.2 percent total and comparing the resulting 21.1 percent to the 10.1 percent) U.S. adults are in poverty because of their literacy level as for all other reasons combined.
How Will YOU Benefit From Ending Illiteracy?
- You will benefit emotionally if you are concerned that people you know and love are — or will be –functionally illiterate. The problems and suffering of illiterates is almost certainly much worse than you realize. Many people you know are — unknown to you — functionally illiterate.
- You will benefit if you object to the average personal cost to U.S. adults of $5186 each year as a result of illiteracy for (1) taxes for government programs that illiterates use and for the truancy, juvenile delinquency, and crime directly related to illiteracy, and (2) higher prices for consumer goods due to illiterates in the workplace.
- You will benefit if you are employed or if you have financial interests in a business or organization in which you invest time or money. Illiteracy affects all organizations to some extent, some of them seriously. Illiteracy cuts the potential customers for written materials almost in half and hurts businesses and organizations because of competition with more literate workers in foreign companies. The monthly U.S. trade deficit has grown steadily worse for many years.
- You will benefit if our nation improves the trade balance, national relationships, and our national employment by improving communication between nations. Over 1.3 billion people worldwide speak English — more than the dialect of any other language. Many of them use English to communicate with those who do not speak their native language, but hundreds of millions of people who speak English cannot read it very well.
What is the primary cause of English illiteracy?
Most people are not functional illiterates because of any failing of their own but because of a defect in the English language. In 1755 an English dictionary was prepared by Dr. Samuel Johnson. Linguists will tell you that Dr. Johnson made a very serious linguistic error in his dictionary. Instead of freezing the spelling of the sounds of the English language, as linguistic logic demands of an alphabetic language, Dr. Johnson froze the spelling of words. In effect, English words are now logograms — certain letters, in a certain order, combine to represent a word, in the same way that strokes of various kinds combine to represent a Chinese character or word. Present day English is a conglomeration of the words — and their spelling — from eight languages, the language of every conqueror who occupied the British Isles prior to 1755. Since that time, English has adopted words — and usually their spelling — from about 350 other languages. See Henry Hitching’s book The Secret Life of Words.
The pronunciation of words changes with time, so what was bad in 1755 is even worse today. Professor Julius Nyikos of Washington and Jefferson College found that there are at least 1768 ways of spelling forty sounds in English. See The Fourteenth LACUS Forum 1987, published by Linguistic Association of Canada and the United States, P.O. Box 101, Lake Bluff, Illinois in 1988. There is not even one invariable spelling rule in English — some of the exceptions have exceptions! The eyes of fluent readers skip easily over a multitude of traps for the beginner. As a result, every word in a person’s vocabulary must be learned, one at a time, either by rote memory or by repeated use.
Why didn’t YOU know the seriousness of the functional illiteracy problem?
- You May Not Have Seen the Report or It Was Not Covered. The results of even important and extensive studies of literacy do not appear in all of the media for these reasons. (a) The literacy study may not be covered if there are too many “more important” stories to be covered. By the time all the more important stories have been covered, the results of the study are no longer “news.” (b) Some media executives have their reporters cover studies showing results they disagree with. Many will not; and (c) media executives are sometimes afraid that reporting unfavorable results from a study will alienate them from groups from whom they desire support. Obviously not all studies fit all three items. As a result, literacy and learning to read may — for example — be front page newspaper stories in some newspapers. It may be totally ignored in others.
- You May Have Seen a Report, But the Way It Was Written Hid the Seriousness of 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 it is far too often 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.
- 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 study mentioned above 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, so the amount of education and the number of persons whose first language is not English was evenly balanced in the five literacy groupings. 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.”
- The article by the Washington Post writer 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 author’s “engineering study” of the report. It was found that although the Washington Post writer’s statement was true, in effect it minimized the seriousness of the problem.
Illiterates Are Exceptionally Good At Hiding. The number of U.S. adults who cannot read at all is very small. But if they only know 1200-1600 simple words they learned by sight in the first four grades in school, they are functionally illiterate. They can’t read and write well enough to hold an above-poverty-level-wage job. They have developed many coping skills for their inability to read over the years. Chances are very good that many of your acquaintances are functional illiterates. They may be very knowledgeable. They may even be eloquent speakers. They just didn’t get their knowledge or eloquence from reading.
Grade-Level Completion Does not equal Grade-Level Competence. Many people assume that after several years of school the students know how to read. Every teacher knows, however — even though they may be in denial of the fact — that this is not necessarily true. Having sat out several years of schooling does not guarantee an outcome. The students may not know even a small fraction of what they have been “taught.”
Illiterates Are a Silent Minority. Out of embarrassment, illiterates are a silent minority. Community and cultural leaders of groups with a large number of illiterates do not want that fact publicized. They fear it will give their “enemies” (racists and class-conscious persons) ammunition against those who cannot read.
Self-Esteem Teaching in School Is Very Effective. Perhaps today’s most successful teaching in U.S. elementary schools is the teaching of self-esteem. Studies have shown that U.S. students often over-estimate their scholastic abilities. The U.S. scored worse than all but two nations in a recent math and science competition with about twenty other nations. Some of the U.S. students in that competition bragged that they were “good at math.” Some of them were not only not “good at math,” they may also have had difficulty reading their math books.
The U.S. Census Reports Greatly Over-Estimate Literacy. Many believe the U.S. is a highly literate nation because of census statistics. The last two or three census reports claimed a U.S. literacy rate of 99%. It is in the short-term interest of politicians and education officials to believe these figures. This is not to say that there was necessarily any conscious deception. Jonathan Kozol’s shocking book, Illiterate America, pages 37-38, explained how these figures were decided upon. Once we understand how the census bureau did the studies, we will be likely to agree with Jonathan Kozol. He thought the accuracy of the census reports was open to serious doubt. The “Adult Literacy in America study,” in fact, proves the census bureau figures on literacy rate are wrong.
Sensory Overload. We are constantly bombarded with information, much of it bad news. The world seems to go on with little effect despite the bad news about literacy. We soon learn to ignore much of it. This is because we often do not want to believe it. Sometimes we have seen a later report denying the validity of the bad news. After a few years we have forgotten most of the bad news, even if we initially thought it was significant.
We Do Not See Large Portions of Our Population in Poverty. In most cases, more than one family member is employed. If all workers in the family are functionally illiterate, the family may be at or below the poverty line. If one or more of the workers in the family are literate, they bring the family above the poverty line.
What is the obvious solution to English functional illiteracy?
The obvious solution is to return English to the principle upon which an alphabetic language should be based — spelling words as they sound, the way 98 percent of all alphabetic languages other than English does! All other attempts at improving the English literacy rate — such as new reading books, better teacher training, and similar changes — are nothing more than fighting the symptoms of the problem, similar to taking aspirin to combat the symptoms of pneumonia rather than taking penicillin to cure it. It is natural to resist change — even change for the better! People often prefer the disadvantages of the familiar to the advantages of the unfamiliar. But when a person researches and finds that absolutely nothing done in American public schools in the last eighty years has made any statistically significant improvement in our true literacy rate (as opposed to the optimistic assessments of politicians and educational leaders who have a vested interest in reporting our literacy level as being higher than it really is) and honestly examines the ease of learning possible with a spelling system that is extremely easy to learn (as opposed to the present illogical, inconsistent, and chaotic English spelling), common sense is certain to cause people honestly to evaluate this spelling reform proposal.
If words are spelled phonetically, students only need to learn the spelling of 38 sounds instead of all 20,000 or more words in their reading vocabulary. Many people have a reading vocabulary of more than 70,000 words. If the phonetic spelling system is a perfect one-spelling-for-one-sound system, present readers can learn it in ten minutes or less.
The use of perfectly phonetic spelling will enable beginning students to learn to fluently read and write in less than three months — perhaps much less. Frank Laubach, founder of Laubach Literacy International, taught thousands of adults to read in over 300 languages around the world. Laubach found that he could teach students to read fluently in from one to twenty days in some languages and in less than three months in 98 percent of these languages. Laubach stated that if English were spelled phonetically, students could learn to read in one week! Adoption of perfectly phonetic spelling will enable hundreds of millions of people around the world who speak English but cannot read it very well — over 93 million in the U.S. alone — to be able to read English who otherwise never would.
How do we know that spelling reform can cure English illiteracy?
Consider these facts about spelling reform:
- Dozens of scholars for over 250 years have recommended spelling reform. For over a hundred years there have been simplified spelling societies in the U.K. and U.S. by various names. The present names are The Spelling Society in the U.K. and American Literacy Council in the U.S. Both organizations have very informative websites, spellingsociety and americanliteracy, .org and .com, respectively.
- Several nations, smaller and larger than the U.S., both advanced and third-world, have simplified their spelling.
- A simpler spelling system has been proven effective for making learning to read easier in more than 300 alphabetic languages but never tried in English. In 295 languages (at least 98% of them) students became fluent readers in less than three months. Most of the 52.2 percent of U.S. adults who presently become functionally literate require two to four years.
- All reasonable objections to spelling reform have been thoroughly debunked by distinguished linguists and educators. To see a very scholarly debunking of objections to spelling reform from 1909 (!) — at a time when the need was not nearly as great as it is today and when the changeover to a logical spelling system would have been much more difficult, without our present computer programs and printing capabilities — see the last chapter of English Spelling and Spelling Reform by Thomas Lounsbury, LL.D, L.H.D, professor emeritus of Yale University. This is a book ready to read or download at the Internet Archive website.
- The need is greater than ever in our increasingly complex world. Although spelling reform is easier than ever due to computer technology, it has never been tried in English.
Rudolph Flesch stated in Why Johnny Can’t Read, pages 76-77 (this book is available for free reading or download from the Internet Archive website),
Generally speaking, students in our schools are about two years behind students of the same age in other countries. This is not a wild accusation of the American education system; it is an established, generally known fact….
Usually the assumption seems to be that in other countries children and adolescents are forced to study harder … I think the explanation is much simpler and more reasonable: Americans take two years longer to learn how to read — and reading, of course, is the basis for achievement in all other subjects.
If English spelling were perfectly phonetic, school curricula could be revised to begin most courses of study two years earlier because students learn to read two years earlier. Our students will no longer have to enter international competition and careers with, in effect, one hand tied behind their backs; their education will — at long last — be equivalent to that of education in other alphabetic languages.