Reading has been so much of my life it's hard to imagine what life would be like if I couldn't read. I remember those early lessons in first and second grade. I remember reading my first picture book when in the third grade. Once that happened, reading took off as an obsession, and as an adolescent and then a teenager, a book became a safe place for me to escape, to have adventures, and discover the world. It therefore always baffles me when I learn how many people cannot read.
Twenty percent of the U.S. population is functionally illiterate, that's one out of every five people, and from the statistics I discovered, perhaps as much as forty percent of the Canadian population. Yet both are listed in the number as countries having 99% literacy on the U.N. Development Program. (High-income countries do not necessarily report literacy information to this program.) All I can say is a dumbfounded, "What?"
So what does that mean? It means we have 42 million Americans who can't read English. According to several sites on the Internet, this number increases by 2.25 million persons a year, so the situation isn't improving. That statistic includes the one million young adults who drop out of school each year, most reading far below an eighth grade level. It includes 400,000 legal immigrants who don't speak or read English but may read in another language, 100,000 legal refugees, and 800,000 illegal immigrants. Okay, learning English as a second language is not easy, and maybe they shouldn't be included in the statistics -- but that number also includes twenty percent of ALL high school graduates.
The reasons for not learning to read are as varied as the individuals who fail to learn, and include physical conditions as well as mental. Yet, I wonder why so few know about this profound problem in our society. Often non-readers become expert at hiding their illiteracy. They know too well the problems: the inability to fill out an employment application, the inability to understand product labels and warnings, their inability to read a simple story to their child or grandchild, and many other awkward 'reading' situations. The illiterate individual often views his or her situation as a humiliating failure, and admitting he or she cannot read is too embarrassing to reveal.
Two methods of teaching reading are used, and each has its advocates. The most popular is the 'see and read' technique commonly used in most schools. Educators have discredited the other method, phonics, but that attitude might be changing. Tests seem to prove phonics might teach reading better. We are failing our children if we don't realize there is room for both methods and more, and we need to encourage reading programs for everyone.
We are failing our tradition of freedom if we don't pass our own love of reading on to the up-and-coming generations. Right now schools face dire challenges with the economic crisis and the mandates put on them by governments, but we cannot let reading and writing skills once again become the exclusive domain of the powerful and the rich. And yes, I believe that could happen, even with all the electronic devices that have in the past required reading. Phones, computers of all ilk, the Internet, and books are quickly becoming overwhelmingly visual experiences.
If as authors, we aren't interested in reading education, then perhaps we are participating in destroying our market.