He stared blankly from across the table, which sat right in the middle of the white tiled floor, and off into some distant corner where one of the several armed guards happened to be standing. The white walls that housed the other men, who wore the same blue pants and a long-sleeved pull-over shirt in a light shade of blue that he did, also sat with friends and family members who came to visit them. The inmates, and those willing to step foot inside the prison, filled the spaces of the cafeteria-like arrangement of tables. They spoke about life on the outside and brought stories and pictures of lives that the men in the prison were missing out on, and if you actually looked into the eyes of the men that were on the inside of the metal fences woven together at the top with barbed wire and the occasional security camera lens, you could see the aching feeling of regret and sadness of how their lives have all ended up behind bars in prison.
The men who were forced to wear uniforms 24 hours a day most likely never wanted grow up to be considered a criminal. In fact, the young man in his late twenties with the beautiful hazel eyes and warm smile who sat across the table actually wanted to be a firefighter when he was in a kindergarten, but his dreams of becoming a hero were replaced with the harsh realities of life without literacy. Shortly after moving on into high school he dropped out and tried to get a job, but without the reading and writing skills that most people take for granted, even filling out the required employment applications seemed like a whole other obstacle that was impossible to face. He tried living on the filthy couches of girlfriends’ houses in the rough ghettos mooching off of single mothers who had no other choice but to receive free babysitting service from the unemployed man on their couches, and when subsisting on poor single mothers ran dry, dealing drugs provided a sturdy income without the hassle of filling out paperwork.
Not everyone who doesn’t know how to read and write ends up on the inside of a concrete cell with cold metal bars, but there aren’t really any other places you can go when a world of words is blocking you from entering and becoming successful. According literacy statistics from begintoread.com, “two-thirds of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of the fourth grade will end up in jail or on welfare.” Apparently “the fourth grade is a watershed year. We can predict that if a child is not reading proficiently in the fourth grade, he or she will have approximately a 78 percent chance of not catching up.”
According to the National Institute of Literacy, the Literacy Company, the National Center for Adult Literacy, and the U.S. Census Bureau, the United States has ranked 12th on the literacy tests taken from a study including 20 of the world’s ‘high income’ countries, and although many parents believe that their children are reading at a level that’s just fine, statistics show that “roughly 50 percent of Americans read so poorly that they are unable to perform simple tasks like balancing a checkbook and reading prescription drug labels, and that to determine how many prison beds will be needed in future years, some states actually base part of their projection on how well current elementary students are performing on reading tests.” Being functionally illiterate has led to “46 to 51 percent of American adults hav[ing] an income well below the individual threshold poverty level because of their inability to read, and nearly half of all Americans read so poorly that they cannot find a single piece of information when reading a short publication,” and not having the appropriate level of reading comprehension skills actually could affect one’s health. The ability to understand the instructions given to patients by their healthcare professionals has actually become an issue in the U.S. “In a 1997 study lead by the National Institute for Literacy (NIFL) of Medicare patients, more than half of the patients given medication couldn’t properly understand the instructions about taking medicines on an empty stomach.”
Literacy is the most essential tool that any person can possess in order to survive in the world. The National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) agrees that literacy, the “using [of] printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential,” is entirely and absolutely necessary for one to function in life. When almost everything that you do requires you to read directions, write notes, and carry on a proper conversation while expressing your thoughts, those who are lost and are left behind in the system of learning aren’t really able to function well or to their potential in today’s society. The use of words can be incredibly powerful whether you use it to change the world with the sound of your voice or the stroke of your pen, and when children are robbed of this incredible power their destined path could leave them stagnant. But how does this even happen when people like the man I described above are sent off to school every day? Aren’t the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic taught in every school system? Somehow enough children have slipped through the cracks of our school system to call the attention of national organizations to look at statistics of how these children usually end up, and any amount of children left powerless by not being able to write and read effective is enough to make sure your children is at least practicing their writing and reading skills at home.
One way we can tackle this problem or illiteracy is by clearly defining what makes someone literate in the first place. More than just the ability to read and to write, literacy is one’s acquired ability to be able to read in order to get knowledge, write in a coherently manner, and to think and function critically about language, communication and the written word. This general definition of literacy is crucial for functioning well in society, but it does begin with reading comprehension. “…Certain discourse communities require a level of oral literacy for members of that society to be considered functional or successful…” said Professor Kristy K. Hodson who teaches basic communication skills and Freshman English at Cal Poly Pomona.
The proactive parenting and teaching duties that are required for instructing children to read and write don’t end when they get to Kindergarten. Both teacher and parent should also make sure that the student is able to comprehend and make use of the knowledge that he or she is reading about or writing. “A good definition of literacy might begin by asserting that literacy means mindfulness to the implications of language use, implications that include language’s power not only to fool and mislead but also to divide people into groups and stigmatize certain groups and, then, justify that deplorable inequality via reference to literacy as some kind of fair measure of what people deserve, said Professor Donald Kraemer who teaches a course on literacy and grad seminars on rhetoric.
The abilities to read and write are tools used for expression and communication. The way we arrange words into complex sentences is a gift given to humans in order to relay intricate thoughts to one another an ideal way. Many people take for granted that gift to transcend the restrictions of the animalistic nature of body language and to connect with other minds on a far deeper level with words. Many individuals only worry about whether or not a student can just read the arrangement of letters on a page and copy down simple sentences with a pen, but what’s seen in the classroom is a struggle to do more than that. “Yes, I see signs of struggle (however, I’m not comfortable labeling what I see as illiteracy) with the English language and grammar from native speakers in my classes,” said Hodson. “Many…students struggle with reading expository essays: they are able to read the words on the page, but they have trouble unpacking the writer’s claims and argument. I think, more than being illiterate, the students lack exposure and practice with this kind of reading, the kind of reading that is perhaps unique to the discourse community of the university or at least not particularly dominant in the students’ other discourse communities.”
Some of these students go on into the world never truly knowing the incredible feeling of being able to construct new arguments and digest interesting information through the written word. They struggle as adults to complete tasks that require more advanced of a skill level than just knowing basic grammar and it’s this reason why parents and teachers should work together to help students get to that next level of literacy. “Encouraging students of any age to cultivate an appreciation for reading and poetry, for the power and pleasure of narrative and language, is one strategy,” said Hodson. Once you instill that love of language in a student, progression toward a higher level of literacy comes easier and it isn’t forced. It also prevents and eliminates the consequences that come with those who never learn how to properly communicate through the written language.
“There is a shame factor when adults are truly unable to read and write,” said Hodson. “Illiterate adults learn to navigate through the world, often by developing incredibly complicated and sophisticated strategies to keep their illiteracy undetected by their family, friends, and employers. Truly illiterate adults cannot be helped if no one knows they are illiterate and they do not self-identify as illiterate.” This shame that is attached to illiteracy as an adult is where some of the statistics from begintoread.com, that have stated that “two-thirds of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of the fourth grade will end up in jail or on welfare,” most likely come from. If “the fourth grade is a watershed year,” and you “can predict that if a child is not reading proficiently in the fourth grade, [and] he or she will have approximately a 78 percent chance of not catching up,” the children who have fallen behind must have incredibly low self-esteem.
Just hobbling along through life as someone who is secretly struggling to read will hinder all other aspects of their academic education and they are more likely to drop out before their high school graduation. Now especially in this uncertain economy and job those trying to seek a job at least without a completed high school education have more trouble finding a job, and of course without a job you’re unable to live and function properly in today’s society. Many times these individuals without jobs do end up in jail because selling drugs, in their opinion, is the only way they can survive and make a living. Welfare becomes a crutch they use as they struggle with jobs that may not pay as much as they need to be able to live off of, and their lives seem to suffer while they just feel like they are stuck inside this cycle of misfortune.
The cycle of misfortune can cease, however, if certain programs or organizations could “make adult education more accessible would help increase literacy levels, said Professor Olga Griswold who teaches linguistics and the theory and pedagogy of grammar at Cal Poly Pomona, but this cycle can also be fully avoided if you tackle the important skills involved with literacy at a young age before students can become too discouraged to want to catch up if they are behind. The University of Michigan Health System’s website suggests that parents limit “your family’s television viewing time,” become a model for reading by keeping “books, newspapers and magazines around your house,” so that “your child sees you reading” and “will learn that you value reading… Reading with your child is [also] a great activity. It not only teaches your child that reading is important to you, but it also offers a chance to talk about the book, and often other issues will come up. Books can really open the lines of communication between parent and child” and going to the library and trying to find books together with your kids really instills that love of reading for years to come. And of course I agree with Maya Angelou when she said, “any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his deep and continuing needs, is good for him.” It only helps give your child a chance at a future full of success.
Angelou, Maya. Quote taken from: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/reading.html
Begin to Read. “Literacy Statistics.” WriteExpress Corporation. (1996-2012).
National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), National Assessment of Adult Literacy
(NAAL), National Institute for Literacy (NIFL). “Grim Illiteracy Statistics Indicate Americans Have a Reading Problem.” Education-Portal. (2003- 2012). http://educationportal.com/articles/Grim_Illiteracy_Statistics_Indicate_Americans_Have_a_Reading_Problem.html
National Institute of Literacy, the Literacy Company, the National Center for Adult Literacy, and
the U.S. Census Bureau. “Global Literacy.” Speaking Books. http://booksofhope.com/openbook/index.php?/global-literacy.html
Professor Donald Kraemer, Ph.D. Personal interview. 23 May, 2012.
Professor Kristy K. Hodson, Ph.D. Personal interview. 23 May, 2012.
Professor Olga Griswold, Ph.D. Personal interview. 21 May, 2012.
U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2007). The Condition
of Education 2007 http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=69
University of Michigan Health System. “Reading, Literacy and Your Child.”