In part 1 of this blog topic, we talked about the tremendous problem of adult illiteracy in this country, looked at the staggering numbers, and contemplated the possible correlations with varying social conditions. Now, though, we need to answer the questions those figures raised – what can we do to help those who are illiterate, and how can we prevent a new generation from ending up that way?
According to the Heritage Foundation, no data exist to suggest a causal relationship between poverty and illiteracy, though current research indicates the most significant factor linking illiteracy and poverty is the education level of the mother. But while individuals living in impoverished conditions may suffer from a higher rate of illiteracy than other groups, many poor Americans exceed average literacy rates and demonstrate good writing skills.
The organization suggests there is evidence that literacy is linked to cultural influences other than economic status, the most important being the people the child is exposed to. If they are exposed to adults who take pleasure in reading and to teachers who emphasize good reading strategies and positive attitudes toward literate activities, they are much more likely to develop good reading and writing skills than children not exposed to such influences. Thus, even children in the poorest schools are able to overcome obstacles and succeed.
If this is, in fact, the case, then throwing more money at the problem is not likely to be a successful solution. A better approach would be to provide a good, basic curriculum as early as possible; and, in addition, stress phonics as a means of reading instruction. Phonics is the process of learning the sounds of letters and putting them together to form words. The “whole word” method used throughout the 1960s and 1970s, by contrast, encouraged rote memorization of words or phrases, which does not aid in tackling unfamiliar words. Phonics, by contrast, while a more complex method to decode words than the whole word method, teaches children to read and understand new words, and it helps close the literacy gap among ethnic groups.
Congress officially recognized illiteracy as a problem when it enacted the 1991 National Literacy Act and established the National Institute for Literacy. The Institute establishes policies, conducts research, and sponsors promising initiatives. It works together with many private groups, as well as university programs and library systems.
Many businesses have invested in their employees by working to educate or re-educate adults through job placement programs, remedial or retraining classes, company-sponsored literacy efforts, and partnerships with universities that offer courses in basic skills and employment-related training. This makes sense, as the prevailing view of American business is that firms need workers with a good basic education, not sophisticated vocational training that fails to provide these basic skills. In addition, non-profit organizations such as the Literacy Volunteers of America, established in 1962, have helped hundreds of thousands of Americans improve their basic literacy skills.
Literacy programs work best when they engage students in their own communities, strengthening their commitment to the education of their families and those around them. Libraries are a wonderful place to find volunteer literacy tutors who can help struggling adults become proficient readers. As the adults become literate, they can help prevent the persistent illiteracy cycle by bringing their skills into the home. Research has found that reading to kids early on can help to boost literacy rates over the long term. An estimated 77% of children who are read to are more likely to read or attempt to read on their own, versus 57% of kids who don’t have regular story time at home.
This idea is supported by the U.S. Department of Education, which indicates that preschoolers whose parents read to them are better prepared to begin school and perform at higher rates than those not exposed to reading. The Center for Literacy in Philadelphia uses “family literacy” programs to address the problem. These programs are designed to help parents of young children become enthusiastic about learning. As this enthusiasm is passed on to the children, the cycle of illiteracy is effectively broken.
Online programs, such as AceReader, do not teach students how to read, but they do function to help those who are below-average readers improve their reading rate, comprehension, and fluency. They can be used in combination with other reading methods to help strengthen skills and advance reading proficiency across age, cultural, and economic groups.
So what can you do to help? Contact your local library to see if there is a literacy program in place and volunteer to become a tutor. If there is no such program, ask what you would need to do to get one started, or contact the Department of Education for more information. Get in touch with local businesses and offer literacy training for any of their employees they feel would benefit from the experience. If you don’t feel you’re qualified to help, organizations such as the Literacy Volunteers of America will give you the training you need. All it takes is one person committed to help one other person to start breaking the cycle of illiteracy. In this case, you can make a difference not only in people’s lives, but in the future of this country, as well.
Do you have literacy resources you could share with us? Please do so in the comments below.
 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
 Lake, Rebecca. (May 12, 2016). Shocking Facts: 23 Statistics on Illiteracy in America. Retrieved from https://www.creditdonkey.com/illiteracy-in-america.html
 Rivas, Paul. (nd). Volunteers are Working to Eliminate Illiteracy. Retrieved from http://www.villagelife.org/news/archives/func_illiterate.html