A long-awaited federal study finds that an estimated 32 million adults in the USA – about one in seven – are saddled with such low literacy skills that it would be tough for them to read anything more challenging than a children’s picture book or to understand a medication’s side effects listed on a pill bottle. Though many communities are making strides to tackle the problem, it’s worsening elsewhere – in some cases significantly.

Overall, the study finds, the nation hasn’t made a dent in its adult-literacy problem: From 1992 to 2003, it shows, the USA added about 23 million adults to its population; in that period, an estimated 3.6 million more joined the ranks of adults with low literacy skills.  How low? It would be a challenge to read this newspaper article or deconstruct a fuel bill.  “They really cannot read … paragraphs (or) sentences that are connected,” says Sheida White, a researcher at the U.S. Education Department.

The findings come from the department’s National Assessment of Adult Literacy, a survey of more than 19,000 Americans ages 16 and older. The 2003 survey is a follow-up to a similar one in 1992 and for the first time lets the public see literacy rates as far down as county levels.   In many cases, states made sizable gains. In Mississippi, the percentage of adults with low skills dropped 9 percentage points, from 25% to 16%. In every one of its 82 counties, low-skill rates dropped – in a few cases by 20 percentage points or more.  By contrast, in several large states – California, New York, Florida and Nevada, for instance – the number of adults with low skills rose.

David Harvey, president and CEO of ProLiteracy, an adult-literacy organization, says Mississippi “invested more in education … and they have done innovative programming. We need much more of that.”  U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings says efforts in adult literacy are inefficient and “scattered” across government agencies.  “We’re not using research-based practices, broadly applied,” she says.  Harvey cites undiagnosed learning disabilities, immigration and high school dropouts as reasons for the poor literacy numbers.  The findings are published online at: nces.ed.gov/naal/estimates/index.aspx   USA Today, 1/9/09

The National Center for Family Literacy (NCFL) identifies parental literacy as one of the single most important indicators of a child’s success. The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) has concluded that youngsters whose parents are functionally illiterate are twice as likely to be functionally illiterate themselves. The statistics are overwhelming:

  • By age four, children who live in poor families will have heard 32 million fewer words than children living in professional families.
  • One in five, or 20%, of America’s children five years old and under live in poverty.
  • Some 30 million adults in the United States have extremely limited literacy skills. If one teacher could teach 100 adults to read, we would need 300,000 adult education teachers to meet this need.
  • The Hispanic population is the largest minority in the United States and has the highest school dropout rate. More than two in five Hispanics living in America age 25 and older have not graduated from high school. (NCFL)

Though the above statistics are accurate, involving parents/families in literacy programs can change the odds for YOUR students. PTA(www.pta.org) notes:

  • When parents are involved, students achieve more, regardless of socio-economic status, ethnic/racial background, or the parents’ education level.
  • When parents are involved, students exhibit more positive attitudes and behavior.
  • To have long-lasting gains for students, parent involvement activities must be well planned, inclusive, and comprehensive.
  • Children from diverse cultural backgrounds tend to do better when parents and professionals collaborate to bridge the gap between the culture at home and the learning situation. (edutopia.org)  

“Parental involvement isn’t a luxury — it’s an integral component of student achievement and school reform.” (www.edutopia.org