In the United States, an estimated 30 million people over the age of 16 read no better than the average elementary school child. Worldwide, nearly 800 million adults are illiterate in their native languages; two-thirds of them are women. Yet the ability to read and write is the basis for all other education; literacy is necessary for an individual to understand information that is out of context, whether written or verbal. Literacy is essential if we are to eradicate poverty at home and abroad, improve infant mortality rates, address gender inequality, and create sustainable development. Without literacy skills – the abilities to read, to write, to do math, to solve problems, and to access and use technology – today’s adults will struggle to take part in the world around them and fail to reach their full potential as parents, community members, and employees.
Adults Need Strong Literacy Skills
…to raise children who have strong literacy skills.
Learning to read begins long before a child enters school. It begins when parents read to their children, buy their children books, and encourage their children to read. The research is clear: parents who are poor readers don’t read as often to their children as do parents who are strong readers; children who are not read to enter school less prepared for learning to read than other children.
…to be good employees.
The employees most in demand in the U.S. have at least a two-year college degree. Workers must be able to read safety regulations and warnings so they and their co-workers can stay safe on the job. And working in a team means that employees must be able to communicate clearly with one another.
…to keep themselves and their families healthy.
Understanding a doctor’s orders, calculating how much medicine to take, reading disease-prevention pamphlets—all are ways adults can keep themselves and their families healthy. But millions of adults lack these essential “health literacy” skills, which adds an estimated $230 billion a year to the cost of health care in the U.S.
…to be active in their communities.
Political campaigns in the U.S. often stress the need for “informed voters.” But how can an individual be well informed if he or she cannot access written campaign literature or read newspaper coverage of the issues and candidates? The 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy, conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, showed that low literate adults are less likely to vote than strong readers, but become more active in their communities as their reading and writing skills improve.
…to advocate for themselves and avoid human rights abuse.
People must be aware of their rights in order to assert them. Literacy gives people access to that information. Literacy plays a significant role in reducing gender inequality. Cultural traditions and local laws often favor men, allowing them access to education, property, employment, health care, and government participation that is denied to women.
…to avoid crime.
There is a clear correlation between adult illiteracy and crime. More than 45 percent of all inmates in local jails, 40 percent in state facilities, and 27 percent in federal corrections institutions did not graduate from high school. Inmates age 24 and younger are less educated.
Basic Facts about Literacy
Literacy is the ability to read, write, compute, and use technology at a level that enables an individual to reach his or her full potential as a parent, employee, and community member.
- There are 774 million adults around the world who are illiterate in their native languages.
- Two-thirds of the world’s illiterate adults are women.
- In the U.S., 30 million people over age 16 – 14 percent of the country’s adult population – don’t read well enough to understand a newspaper story written at the eighth grade level or fill out a job application.
- The United States ranks fifth on adult literacy skills when compared to other industrialized nations.
- Adult low literacy can be connected to almost every socio-economic issue in the United States:
- More than 60 percent of all state and federal corrections inmates can barely read and write.
- Low health literacy costs between $106 billion and $238 billion each year in the U.S. – 7 to 17 percent of all annual personal health care spending.
- Low literacy’s effects cost the U.S. $225 billion or more each year in non-productivity in the workforce, crime, and loss of tax revenue due to unemployment.