American Literacy in the 21st Century

According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, many of the more than 700,000 students who leave U.S. high schools without a diploma have low literacy rates. Furthermore, over 60 percent of middle and high school students scored below “proficient” level in overall reading achievements. Why are literacy rates important and what can be done to improve them in the U.S.? To learn more, check out the infographic below created by the University of Cincinnati’s Online Master of Education program.

American Literacy infographic

Literacy Rates in the U.S.

The ability to read is an essential skill that affects nearly everything else that we do in life. Proficiency in reading is something that everyone should aspire to. Unfortunately, only the minority of students are currently reaching it. The 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress Reading Test revealed that over 60% of middle and high school students scored below the “proficient” level in reading achievement. About 37% of 12th graders were only able to read at the basic level and 25% scored even lower. The data came from the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress Reading Test.

Literacy Definitions

There are three types of functional English literacy: prose, document and quantitative. The prose involves knowledge and skills needed to perform prose tasks. Examples of this include news stories, brochures and instructional materials. Document requires abilities to process documentary tasks such as job applications, transportation schedules, food labels, maps, payroll forms and similar things. Quantitative requires an aptitude for numerical processing. For instance, people routinely have to compute their grocery needs, cooking ratios, time to complete tasks and so on. Sometimes it is necessary to balance a checkbook, calculate a tip, or fill out an order form.

There are four literacy levels: below basic, basic, intermediate and proficient. A score at the “below basic” level indicates no more than the most simple literacy skills. Meanwhile, basic level learners should be able to perform everyday literacy activities with little trouble. At the intermediate level, individuals are able to perform the more challenging activities. At the very top is the proficiency level, which indicates the presence of skills necessary to perform the most complex and challenging tasks. Those who are considered proficient can breeze through regular activities and can take on the more difficult jobs.

Challenges of Low Literacy

Low literacy rates present a number of challenges for individuals and families. For instance, 44 million adults are unable to read simple stories to their children. Because children pick up their parents’ habits, infrequent readers are likely to pass on this trait. The chances of employment are also impacted. As many as 52% of adults who read below the 5th grade level are out of the labor force and have a difficult time finding work. Education is a major determinant. Half of adults without a high school diploma have difficulty reading.

Benefits of High Literacy Rates

On the other side of things, high literacy definitely has its perks. Adults who are proficient readers tend to earn a much greater income than average. They also enjoy more employment opportunities. Studies show that the likelihood of employment goes up as an individual becomes a better reader. Up to 78% of excellent readers are employed compared to just 45% of those with less than ideal skills. It was also found that about 60% of employees with high literacy rates have jobs in management, business, financial or professional sectors.

Improving Literacy in Middle and High Schools

Reading may seem like a simple skill to some, but it can be difficult to master for many. As we have seen, this has enormous consequences for both the individual and the country as a whole. Educators need to step up to bridge the gap in order for all children to have a bright future ahead of them. There are a number of effective classroom and intervention practices that teachers can use to improve outcomes. Start by identifying the most common problem areas for struggling readers. These include vocabulary, comprehension, fluency, word decoding, phonics, and phonological and phonetic awareness.

The next step would be to provide solutions for each of these problem areas. For instance, it would be helpful to provide explicit vocabulary instruction. Time should be devoted to the widening of the students’ range of known words. They should be taught to embrace the unknown instead of being intimidated by it. After all, the dictionary is always there for assistance. Teachers should also provide direct and explicit comprehension lessons. It is not enough to merely read the words on the page. Students must be able to get a clear grasp of what it all means on a deeper level.

Instructors should provide their classes with opportunities for extended discussion of the text’s meaning. Short stories, poems and novels need to be dissected to get to the bottom of every element. After all, words can have different meanings and context can drastically affect what is being said. There is also a need to enhance student motivation and engagement in class. The discussions should be done in fresh and exciting new ways to capture interest. Another solution is to make intensive and personalized interventions available for struggling readers. They are the ones who require the most attention.

Technology can be harnessed to boost this campaign. Schools can use electronic references, such as dictionaries and encyclopedias, to provide students with instant access to learning aids. Teachers can use videos, animations and diagrams to illustrate a point. They may also use text-to-speech software, spell checkers, word prediction apps and other related programs. Instructors must think of creative ways to incorporate these widely available digital tools to enhance classroom discussions.