Functional illiteracy is defined by the non-profit Literacy Volunteers of America as “the inability of an individual to use reading, writing, and computational skills in everyday life.” Think that’s not a problem in as developed a country as America? Well, you’re wrong. It’s a big one – a really big one.
The National Center for Education Statistics reported in 2003 that 43 percent of American adults are virtually illiterate. That’s almost half the adult population! Most groups define “illiteracy” as an adult whose reading comprehension is at or below a sixth-grade level. Some 30 million adults aren’t able to comprehend material geared for 10-year-olds, and another 63 million adults read between a sixth- and eighth-grade level. This problem is not confined to any one group, race, or location. According to the National Education Association, 41% of illiterates are white, 22% are English-speaking African Americans, 22% are Spanish speaking, and 15% are other non-English speaking peoples. Fifty-one percent live in small towns, 41% in cities, and 40 percent of these adults are between the ages of 20 to 39, adults in their prime working and child-rearing years. Among developed nations, the U.S. ranks only 16th for adult reading skills.
Research has linked illiteracy to poverty as an adult, with as many as 75% of welfare recipients struggling to read even the simplest texts. In terms of economic productivity, social service expenditures, and lost tax revenues, it’s estimated that the portion of the population that can’t read costs the nation a staggering $225 billion each year. And illiterate patients can impact the health care system to the tune of $100 billion per year. They are confounded by the complexities of the system, and they don’t go to the doctor as a result. When they finally do go, they can’t read the intake forms or the instructions on the medications they’re prescribed, and by that time their illnesses are so advanced they often require a higher level of or emergency care.
Illiteracy is also an issue within the criminal justice system. Approximately 85% of juveniles appearing before the court are considered to be functionally illiterate, meaning they read at a basic or below basic level; among the adult prison population, about 70% of both male and female inmates score at the lowest proficiency level for reading. In fact, to determine how many prison beds will be needed in future years, some states, such as California, actually base part of their projection on how well current elementary students are performing on reading tests.
There are many reasons people end up illiterate. Some drop out of school. Some come to the U.S. from another country. Others have ineffective teachers, or they are not yet ready to learn reading when it is initially taught, leaving them trailing their classmates. The problem, though, really begins in the home. Without a doubt, parents who are illiterate often pass the difficulty on to their children. Without books, newspapers, or magazines in the home and a parent who reads to serve as a role model, many children grow up with severe literacy deficiencies themselves. And low-income students begin kindergarten at a disadvantage because they hear fewer words and have fewer books in their homes than their more affluent peers, though poverty itself is not a determining cause of illiteracy.
In short, illiteracy affects all aspects of our lives and our country. In 1997, then-president Bill Clinton summed up the problem of an illiterate society well:
“Literacy is indispensable to attaining many of the most basic goals for humanity’s well-being — healthier babies, longer lives, greater productivity, stronger economies, and stable societies. It is a tragedy that in America today, when we live and work in the vanguard of the information age, millions of our fellow citizens cannot read, and millions more read below the skill level necessary to function successfully in our society . . . Building a literate world is a vital challenge that none of us can ignore.”
The question is how do we build that more literate world? How can we turn around decades of failing educational practices to make the United States the leader in reading it was during the 19th century? We will address these questions and provide some answers next week in Part 2 of our discussion.
 Rivas, Paul. (nd). Volunteers are Working to Eliminate Illiteracy. Retrieved from http://www.villagelife.org/news/archives/func_illiterate.html
 Lake, Rebecca. (May 12, 2016). Shocking Facts: 23 Statistics on Illiteracy in America. Retrieved from https://www.creditdonkey.com/illiteracy-in-america.html
 (Source: National Institute for Literacy, National Center for Adult Literacy, The Literacy Company, U.S. Census Bureau)
 Heritage Foundation. (February 12, 1989). Illiteracy in America: What to Do about It. Retrieved from http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/1989/02/illiteracy-in-america-what-to-do-about-it