Libraries and adult literacy

America has a problem with adult literacy. Too many adults read so poorly they can barely function. American libraries, therefore, are working to contribute new and innovative continuing education to boost adult literacy.

Consider the following statistics:

  • 5-6 year olds have a vocabulary of 2,500 to 5,000 words. Disadvantaged students in the first grade have approximately half the vocabulary of advantaged students.
  • The educational outlook for 25-40% of American children is imperiled because of their inability to read well enough, easily enough, or quickly enough.
  • Over a span of 15 years, more than 10 million American students reached 12th grade who had not learned to read at a basic level. At the same time, more than 6 million dropped out of high school.
  • More than 20% of adults read at no higher than a 5th-grade level, way below the skills they need to earn a living.
  • 21 million American adults can’t read at all. 45 million have marginal reading skills. A fifth of high school graduates can’t read their diplomas.
  • Nearly half of adults in America are functionally illiterate, meaning that they can’t carry out simple tasks like balancing a checkbook or reading drug labels.
  • 44 million American adults can’t read well enough to read a simple story to a child.
  • 75% of people on welfare, 85% of unwed mothers, 68% of people arrested, 85% of juvenile offenders, and 60% of America’s prison population have reading problems.
  • The US ranked 12th in literacy among 20 high-income countries.
  • By 2020, in order to participate fully in society and the workplace, the average American citizen will need a level of literacy skills achieved up to now by a very small percentage of the population.

These dire statistics, compiled from various sources over the last 20 years, appear on the website of The Literacy Company, along with their sources and, usually, dates. The full list contains many more statistics.

The reasons for our problems are many, and include the structure of our educational system, the effects of poverty, and the influx of immigrants with little or no knowledge of English. It is not my intention to analyze the reasons for the problems. I simply want to point out the role of libraries in working toward solutions.

Adult education dayIn 2007 the American Library Association began a program called the American Dream Starts @ your library. (Link no longer works as of June 2017.) It has provided one-time grants of $5000 to 100 libraries in 28 states to improve their adult literacy programs.

That’s improve, not start. It’s not like only these hundred libraries are actively working on the problems!

Services to adult English learners at American libraries include training and recruiting tutors (mostly volunteers), teaching classes in English for Speakers of Other Languages and citizenship, and building partnerships with other organizations in the community.

The lack of adequate literacy skills among such a large portion of the population carries with it multiple costs. Individuals with poor skills pay with not being qualified for jobs that pay well and getting swallowed in a cycle of poverty that they pass down from generation to generation. Society pays both in costs for law enforcement and crime, but also in terms of money not spent and taxes not collected. Poor literacy skills compared to other nations puts the entire national future at risk. Local libraries are among the most important resources for combatting these problems.

Adult education day. Photo credit: Some rights reserved by John Brandt.

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