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Functional Illiteracy – Its Shocking Extent and Seriousness – Its Proven Solution
A recent and careful study of the most comprehensive and statistically accurate report on adult literacy in the United States ever commissioned by the US government (a free 200-page report available on the Internet: search the title of the study) proves that the extent and severity of English illiteracy is a lot worse than previously believed. The good news is that the solution to English illiteracy is much easier than almost anyone would ever dream of.
Do we really have a literacy crisis?
By knowing how to read, we are, to a large extent, separated from those who are very poor readers. Because of the coping methods illiterates have developed, many of our associates may be illiterate without our knowledge. So we may find it hard to believe that we have a literacy crisis, but a recent study of the most in-depth and statistically accurate study of American adult illiteracy ever commissioned by the US government conclusively proves that we we have a crisis. This study was a five-year, $14 million study involving extensive interviews with 26,049 American adults who were statistically balanced for age, sex, ethnicity, and location (urban, suburban, and rural from twelve states in the United States States and 1,100 inmates from 80 prisons) to represent the entire US population. This report, titled Adult Literacy In America, divided respondents into five literacy groups based on their ability to respond correctly to the material they were given to read. The number of days worked per year and the amount they earned per hour were reported by literacy group.
Using data from the Adult Literacy in America report, Literacy Research Associates, Inc., a nonprofit educational company, calculated average annual earnings by literacy group and compared them to an individual’s poverty line reported by the US Census Bureau. The average annual incomes of American adults in the two lowest literacy groups, comprising 48.7% of those surveyed, were below the poverty line. This means that 48.7% of American adults read and write so poorly that they cannot hold a job that pays above the poverty line. That’s another way of saying they’re functionally illiterate. We don’t see this level of poverty because most families have more than one working adult and because most low-income families receive help from government agencies, family, friends and charities. Literacy Research Associates also calculated the combined average annual earnings of the two least literate groups and compared them to the combined average annual earnings of the three most literate groups. These data prove that 31.2% of functionally illiterate American adults are in poverty and that they are more than twice as likely to be in poverty due to their illiteracy than for all other reasons combined. A total of 0.312 times 48.7 or 15.2% of everything American adults live in poverty, a figure in close agreement with poverty estimates from other sources.
Another reason we don’t see this level of poverty is that the way the media presents information often hides the true dimensions of the problem. Most people have not read the report mentioned above; their only knowledge comes from the reports of the study in the newspapers. The only known journal reporting the study, a New York Times item and a Washington Post article, appeared in some newspapers the day after the Adult Literacy in America report has been published. These two articles have poorly obscured the true extent of the problem.
A 28-page follow-up report by the same agencies that conducted the 1993 study was published in 2006 (available free on the Internet: search the title “A First Look at the Literacy of America’s Adults in the 21st Century”) . He used a smaller database of 19,417 respondents. There were no statistically significant overall differences in respondents’ annual earnings, by level of literacy, between the 2006 and 1993 reports. Although there are several ways to determine functional illiteracy, the employment of workers in for-profit enterprises is arguably the most accurate. Companies won’t keep someone on the payroll who reads so badly they can’t be a profitable employee.
Poverty, of course, is not the only problem that functional illiterates constantly have to endure. Jonathan Kozol’s 1985 book, illiterate americatalked about about 34 different types of serious physical, mental, emotional, medical and financial problems that illiterate people constantly have to endure – problems that most of us would consider a crisis if we had to endure them.
The simple and logical solution
Understanding these issues has been the driving force behind several years of research conducted by a non-profit education company. This research resulted in the modification and perfection of a proven solution to the problem of English illiteracy that has been recommended by dozens of scholars in education and linguistics for over 250 years. It is a solution that has been implemented by several countries smaller and larger than the United States and by advanced and developing countries. Several distinguished scholars have thoroughly debunked all reasonable objections to this solution.
Most of us who can read learned to read in childhood and have long since forgotten how difficult it was for us to learn to read. Our eyes easily jump on a multitude of pitfalls for beginning readers. Professor Julius Nyikos of Washington and Jefferson College studied six desk-sized dictionaries and found 1768 ways to spell 40 phonemes in English. (A phoneme is the smallest sound in a language or dialect that is used to distinguish between syllables or words.) A computer was programmed with all the rules of English spelling and could only spell correctly about half of a long list of common words. words. That’s because every spelling rule has exceptions, and some of the exceptions have exceptions!
Our chaotic, illogical, and inconsistent spelling came about because in 1755 Dr. Samuel Johnson published his well-received dictionary in which he, in effect, froze the spelling of words instead of the spelling of phonemes like requires linguistic logic. His dictionary froze the spelling, in most cases, because the word was spelled in the original language. There were eight different national language groups that had occupied the British Isles in 1755, and we have adopted words from each of them.
Since 1755, according to Henry Hitchings, in his bookThe secret life of words, we’ve adopted words – and generally their spellings – from 350 languages. Therefore, most English words are not spelled with letters representing sounds, but are represented by logograms like Chinese characters. Specific letters in a specific order represent the entire word the same way specific strokes in a specific arrangement represent Chinese characters. Although English spelling is less complicated than Chinese characters, it is more confusing. Specific strokes in a specific arrangement in Chinese always represent the same word or part of a word. In English, a single phoneme can be spelled 60 or more ways and a single letter can represent up to ten phonemes! As a result, each word in a person’s reading vocabulary must be learned one at a time by memory or repeated use.
The “proven solution” mentioned above is because Dr. Frank Laubach, founder of Laubach Literacy International, has traveled around the world teaching illiterate adults to read in over 300 alphabetic languages. He found that in 90% of those languages he could teach them to read in one to 20 days. In some of the simplest languages - like in one or more dialects of the Filipino language – he could teach adults to read in an hour! In 98% of languages, he could teach them to read in less than three months. The grammar and syntax of English are neither the easiest nor the most difficult, but the spelling is by far the worst of all alphabetic languages. English grammar and syntax are easier, for example, than several European languages, each of which students can learn to read fluently in less than three months. Most students need two years or more to learn to read English.
Dr. Laubach thinks the United States is wasting two and a half years teaching American school children to read. He states on page 48 of his book, Forty years with the silent billion, “If we spelled English phonetically, American children could learn to read in a week.” Rudolph Flesch, in his bookWhy Johnny still can’t read, states that Russian schoolchildren learn to read 46 of Russia’s 130 national languages in the first grade and that there is no teaching of reading, as such, after the first grade! Although learning to read English fluently in a week may be somewhat optimistic for some students, it can certainly be expected that every student of normal intelligence will learn to read fluently in less than three months, perhaps much less for some students.
Despite the activity that followed the 1983 report on education “A Nation at Risk”, nothing that has been done in the past eighty years has brought statistically significant improvement. All of the changes made to improve reading instruction to date are really just tweaking the existing system to combat the symptoms of the problem rather than making changes to fix the problem. It’s like taking aspirin to cure the symptoms of pneumonia instead of antibiotics to cure it. This means, for example, acquiring new reading books to overcome the disadvantages of English spelling instead of solving the problem by making the spelling phonetic. Moreover, no matter what changes we make to the method of teaching current English reading material, students will still have to deal with chaotic, illogical and inconsistent spelling and it will take them more than a year to learn to read traditionally spelled English – one word at a time. time.
A non-profit educational company and private 509(a)(2) charity have found and perfected a solution to the serious problem of functional illiteracy among hundreds of millions of English speakers worldwide.
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