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The Lifelong Impact of Illiteracy

By Jennifer Gunn September 18, 2018

Literacy deeply and persistently impacts access to education, economic development, and life outcomes. Even in our modern world, the numbers are startling. Millions — around the world and in our own country — remain functionally illiterate, reading below the basic level.

The International Literacy Association views “literacy as the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, compute, and communicate using visual, audible, and digital materials across disciplines and in any context,” says Dr. Bernadette Dwyer, President of the International Literacy Association. “The right to literacy is a basic fundamental human right. However, 750 million people around the world cannot read and write. Two-thirds of these are female. Despite some progress, gender disparity remains.”

The perpetuation of illiteracy leads to “heavy and often tragic consequences, via lower earnings, poorer health and higher rates of incarceration,” according to McKinsey & Company’s The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools.

Just how much is tied to our nation’s literacy level? You may be surprised.

The social impact

When a person struggles with reading, the social impacts are profound. A person who is unable to read may have low self-esteem or feel emotions such as shame, fear, and powerlessness. Students who struggle with literacy feel ostracized from academia, avoid situations where they may be discovered or find themselves unable to fully participate in society or government. Says Dwyer, “Literacy permeates all areas of life, fundamentally shaping how we learn, work, and socialize. Literacy is essential to informed decision-making, personal empowerment, and community engagement. Communication and connection are the basis of who we are and how we live together and interact with the world.”

A person who cannot read struggles to know their rights, to vote, to find work, to pay bills and to secure housing. All told, this complex struggle spirals outward, impacting future generations and our society. “Illiteracy impacts an individual’s opportunities to fully participate in a democratic society,” says Leigh A. Hall, professor and Excellence Endowed Chair in Literacy Education at the University of Wyoming. “It doesn’t just have a negative effect on that person’s life, but on the overall health and well-being of our country.”

The multigenerational impact

Illiteracy often passes from generation to generation, regardless of whether children attend school. “Many children around the world attend school but do not learn to read, write, or calculate… Many of these adults experienced such frustration as children that they deliberately avoid literacy-related activities in later life. When they have children of their own, they tend to communicate (often non-verbally) their negative feelings towards literacy and schooling to their children, and thus perpetuate an intergenerational cycle of illiteracy,” according to UNESCO’s “8 Learning Families – Intergenerational Approaches to Literacy Teaching and Learning.”

The connection between parental education and the literacy of their children has been examined in numerous studies. Research by the U.S. Department of Education found that “children who are read to at least three times a week by a family member are almost twice as likely to score in the top 25% in reading compared to children who are read to less than three times a week.”

Research in Social Stratification and Mobility (2010) also found that “children growing up in homes with many books get three years more schooling than children from bookless homes, independent of their parents’ education, occupation, and class.” When we disrupt the cycle of poverty and illiteracy, children are better able to overcome the limitations of the previous generation. “When individuals learn how to read, write, do basic math, and use computers, they have the power to lift themselves out of poverty, lower health care costs, find and keep sustainable employment, and ultimately change their lives,” according to ProLiteracy, an organization that addresses adult literacy.

The economic impact

It’s said that “people struggling with literacy are more likely to be poor, lack education, and miss out on opportunities to participate fully in society and the workforce,” according to Project Literacy. The statistics agree. The Brookings Institute has found that less than half of children living in poverty are ready for school at age five, compared to 75% of kids from families with middle to high incomes. Another study found that people with low literacy skills “had poorer health outcomes, including knowledge, intermediate disease markers, measures of morbidity, general health status, and use of health resources.”

In a stunning paper “Literacy and the Entry-Level Workforce: The Role of Literacy and Policy in Labor Market Success,” Dr. William C. Wood of James Madison University used data from the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) and noted that “low literacy is associated with a variety of unfavorable labor market outcomes. One striking fact is that those with the lowest literacy scores are 16.5 times more likely to have received public financial aid in the past year, relative to those in the highest literacy group. They are also more likely to be in the lowest measured wage group, working full-time but earning less than $300 per week.”

For poverty and literacy advocate and speaker Pamela M. Covington, the correlation between poverty and literacy is clear. “Years ago when I unexpectedly fell into poverty, my literacy skills were my ticket out. Had I been unable to read, it would have been impossible for me to so quickly extricate myself and children from the welfare system. I was able to because throughout my upbringing my parents had stressed the importance of literacy and learning.” Dr. Stephen G. Peters, International Literacy Association board member, author/speaker, and superintendent of schools in Laurens County Schools District 55 in South Carolina concurs. “Literacy is the vaccine for poverty. As such, illiteracy facilitates a multitude of negative pathways upon multi-generations and society as a whole.”

The educational debt

Knowing just how deeply etched the impacts of illiteracy are, and with an understanding of the systemic inequities that have led us here, we largely continue to press on in the pursuit of ever-increasing rigor and testing. The term “achievement gap” places blame on students for the inequalities mentioned in this article. Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, in her paper “From the Achievement Gap to the Education Debt: Understanding Achievement in U.S. Schools,” rebrands the “achievement gap” as “educational debt.” The concept is that a debt is owed to our students who live under the residual and continued effects of racism, oppression, and poverty.

Says professor Leigh Hall, “Often the pressure is immense to have students perform well on state reading tests. In this model, the community that students come from is often ignored (and schools that serve high-poverty students are often marginalized and not given the support they need to do their jobs well). We need to tackle two things in order to work towards solving the problem of illiteracy: (a) poverty and (b) creating partnerships between schools/teachers and the communities they serve. Helping all students achieve a high level of literacy requires a concentrated effort from all stakeholders and needs to move beyond focusing on test scores.”

Jennifer L.M. Gunn spent 10 years in newspaper and magazine publishing before moving to public education. She is a curriculum designer, a teaching coach, and high school educator in New York City. She is also co-founder of the annual EDxEDNYC Education Conference for teacher-led innovation and regularly presents at conferences on the topics of adolescent literacy, leadership, and education innovation.

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