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Imagine, for a moment, you are a contestant in a reality show where you
travel around the world. How would you find your way in a country where you do not read or write their language? How would you know where to go, when to get on or off a train, what store to enter, or what box to purchase? Imagine what you might eat if you had to order from a menu you could not read! It may be fun to imagine such a trip but, unfortunately, it summarizes the very real experiences of the millions of people who are functionally illiterate.
Each year, International Literacy Day is observed on September 8th. International Literacy Day recognizes the life-altering importance of being literate. It began in 1956 as a day for Ministers of Education worldwide to renew their commitment to the goal of education for all and to the fight against illiteracy. Since then, the United Nations and other international agencies have joined the fight. The United Nations began observing ILD in 1967. The International Reading Association sponsors events and recognized exemplary programs. Despite this work, enormous gaps exist in worldwide literacy rates.
Why all the fuss over literacy? Ask any 5 or 6 year old: reading is a big deal. As a child, learning how to read and write is something to celebrate. It transforms the world and empowers you. As a reader, you now know that the sign says, “Free puppies today!” and not, as your mom translated, “Eat your spinach.” Reading and writing drastically alters your life experience.
As you age, what it means to be literate changes. Adults who can read on a “Hop on Pop” level are considered functionally illiterate, despite being able to read. Literate adults are expected to have the reading and writing skills necessary to navigate independently in the world—pay bills, purchase groceries, and maneuver around town, understand and sign contracts, use technology, fulfill work responsibilities, read a newspaper, and pursue an education and hobbies. The focus on literacy is not simply about making sure everyone is able to read, “The Hungry Caterpillar” or “Romeo and Juliet.” It is not a bunch of book-lovers wanting to spread the love. Lower literacy rates are associated with issues with far-reaching ramifications: less education, greater poverty, and higher unemployment and crime rates.
Americans score relatively well on international literacy tests: 99% of Americans are literate. However, a closer examination reveals there is much room for improvement. Consider some statistics from Begin to Read. What does literacy in the United States look like when you consider mathematical literacy along with reading literacy? The infographic, Understanding Illiteracy, lets you take a closer look at literacy rates in the United States. Share your questions, connections, or reactions to at least three of these statistics.
Let us zoom in even closer to your communities. The National Center for Education Statistics used statistical models to estimate literacy levels for each state and county. The tests examined three types of literacy. View sample questions: prose, document, and quantitative. Play with the sample question search feature to read more sample questions. What is your impression of these questions? State and County Estimates of Low Literacy allows you to select a state, and to choose a jurisdiction. View the illiteracy estimate for your state, and your county. Then, view the statistics for neighboring states and counties. How do they compare? What do these statistics reveal about literacy in the United States? View the key findings. Select one chart and explain its information. View the results by race and age, and by education level. What questions or theories do you have in response to this information?
Statistics are one way of peeking at illiteracy in America, but the more important picture includes the people behind the numbers. ABC News’ series, Living in the Shadows, helps share the stories of two such people. Read Monica Baxley’s story. Then, read how Roger Vredenberg overcame illiteracy.
Finally, consider the issue of illiteracy in America and write a journal entry. You might: list reasons why being literate matters, individually, and how illiteracy affects a community; assess your literacy skills—in what areas do you excel and in what areas might you work to improve? What are your literacy goals?; find a program; or, you start (or join) a tutoring at the local elementary or middle school.