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.

What Three Little Pigs Can Teach About Reading & Writing

This post was submitted by Liz Buchanan, originally published in her blog on March 17, 2015.

In my songwriting life, I’ve become a little obsessed with characters in threes. My initial “Three Piggy Opera” was so much fun that on my next Once Upon a Tune CDalbum, Once Upon a Tune, I included my own songs about The Three Bears, Three Billy Goats Gruff and Three Little Kittens. You can find all these songs at my Songs for Teaching Page.

What’s with all the threes? Plus there are all the variations and parodies of the above stories: The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs, The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig, Los Tres Cerditos. How about The Three Little Tamales or The Three Little Javalinas! The three-character theme is a staple of many a kindergarten curriculum.

Why three? This is probably all explained similarly elsewhere, but here’s my take. The three somebodies are a perfect way to teach about the elements of the typical linear story. Stories have a beginning, middle and end. Stories have a protagonist who wants something. Stories have an antagonist who thwarts what the protagonist wants. Protagonist figures out in the end how to overcome antagonist.

Hey, that’s just what they taught us when I got my MFA in fiction writing (though of course there are the feminist variations that just go in circles). What makes a good story all comes down to … The Three Little Pigs!

So at my most recent kindergarten concert, I lined up three children holding their three cut-out houses, of straw, sticks and bricks. I said, “Just like these three pigs, stories have three parts: a beginning, middle and end.” The first pig is the beginning of the story, the second pig is the middle, and the third pig finally figures out how to solve the problem.

The Three Billy Goats Gruff unfolds in exactly the same way. The Three Bears gets more complicated, because Goldilocks isn’t your classic bad-wolf antagonist, she’s just a bit confused about what to do upon encountering a strange house in the woods. But in a slightly more advanced way, the story’s scenes develop with essentially the same three-part structure.

It also occurred to me that The Three Little Pigs is a perfect way to lay the groundwork for writing a simple, cohesive essay. You know: state your premise, develop your ideas in three tidy segments, and tie it all together in a conclusion.

Now, I wouldn’t go telling kindergarteners to write essays based on the three pigs structure (though in this current weird world of ‘kindergarten is the new high school’ somebody might be trying to do that). But I do think that learning the structure of the ‘story of three’ provides an effective overlay for the logical analysis, organization and presentation of ideas.

Again, I’m sure I’m not the first person to think of this. But for me, it was an aha moment.

Do kids get the connection? Do they better understand literature and write more cohesive essays after carefully studying The Three Little Pigs? I don’t know. I’d love to hear from teachers on this topic.

I do firmly believe that giving students a chance to embody the story through singing, moving and acting deepens their understanding and might even make them better writers. Plus they’re having a lot of fun – we can still do that in education, right?

Phonemic Awareness by Margo Edwards

Today’s post is from  Guest Blogger, Margo Edwards of 


Phonemic Awareness is a crucial foundational skill for child literacy. It is, quite simply, the ability to think about and play with the sounds in spoken words. A child with high phonemic awareness understands that:

  • adding a /fff/ sound to the beginning of arm makes a new word, farm.
  • the word bow is the word boat with the /t/ sound chopped off the end.
  • if you take the word mug and replace the /mmm/ sound at the beginning with a /rrr/ sound, you get the word rug.

Phonemic Awareness is sometimes called Pre-Phonics. A child with high phonemic awareness and a solid knowledge of the alphabet letters and their sounds is well-prepared for Phonics and for future success in Kindergarten and elementary school.

How do I teach Phonemic Awareness to my child? Our free online curriculum has 110 carefully sequenced games and activities designed to help you do just that. The curriculum includes clear instructions, “how-to” videos, and free printables, providing everything you need to lead an individual child or a classroom full of preschoolers down the path to literacy.

Start as early as age 3, with Listening and Rhyming games. Then introduce the idea that spoken language is made up of Sentences and Words, which can be divided into Syllables. Four-year-olds who can divide words into syllables are ready to dive into the heart of our curriculum: Beginning Sounds, Ending Sounds, and more. Our final module is actually a bridge between phonemic awareness and basic reading.

Early literacy is the key to success in future learning. If a child falls behind early, it’s nearly impossible to catch up. Seven out of eight children who start elementary school behind their classmates are still behind at the end of elementary school. So help your child get – and stay – ahead of the curve!

Margo Edwards is the Director of Content Development at, a website dedicated to providing free resources that promote child literacy. is proud to be sponsored by the Georgia Preschool Association.

Click here for songs that teach Phonemic Awareness!

Finding Great Books for Your Kids!

Kids readingDo you ever get lost in the library or the bookstore? In all honesty, it isn’t really a bad thing when that happens, but with our busy lives, sometimes we find something quick and easy. That is why whenever I need a new children’s book, I turn to the experts and look at the award winners. Here are few of the great children’s book awards and the winners for 2016.

Caldecott Awards

By far my favorite book award is the Cadecott Award. The Caldecott Medal was named in honor of nineteenth-century English illustrator Randolph Caldecott. It is awarded annually by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children. The illustrations are always so captivating. Great for engaging readers of all ages!

The 2016 Medal Winner:

Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear

by Lindsay Mattick and illustrated by Sophie Blackall

Before Winnie-the-Pooh, there was a real bear named Winnie. Here is the remarkable true story of the bear who inspired Winnie-the-Pooh.

2016 Honor Books:

Trombone Shorty

by Troy Andrews (author) and Bryan Collier (Illustrator)

Hailing from the Tremé neighborhood in New Orleans, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews got his nickname by wielding a trombone twice as long as he was high. Trombone Shorty is a celebration of the rich cultural history of New Orleans and the power of music.


Illustrated and written by Kevin Henkes

An owl, a puppy, a bear, a rabbit, and a pig—all toys arranged on a child’s windowsill—wait for marvelous things to happen in this irresistible picture book.


Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement

Illustrated by Ekua Holmes, written by Carole Boston Weatherford

Stirring poems and stunning collage illustrations celebrate Fannie Lou Hamer, a champion Civil Rights.


Last Stop on Market Street

illustrated by Christian Robinson and written by Matt de la Peña

Every Sunday after church, CJ and his grandma ride the bus across town. This energetic ride through a bustling city highlights the wonderful perspective only grandparent and grandchild can share.