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What Does It Really Mean to Be Literate in America?

The ability to read is not the same as doing it

Scrabble tiles saying, "Read the Book."

Guessing games and mistaken meaning

If you had to guess what the literacy rate in America is, what would you say?

This is NOT a rhetorical question. Think about it. What percentage of the population of the United States is considered to be literate? Come up with a number in your head.

The definition of literacy is “the ability to read and write.” (Mind you, it doesn’t say reads “well” or writes “proficiently.”) The meaning of literacy is the most basic skill of seeing words and understanding their meaning, (reading) and physically putting letters into words (writing).

What did you guess?

I guessed it was probably about 85%, based on my misunderstood definition of the term “literacy” and my observation that for many people, the only reading and writing they do is texting.

My numbers were WAY OFF. According to statistics, the literacy rate in America and most other countries of the world is a whopping 95%. In fact, 86% of the world’s entire population over the age of 15 is considered to be literate.

So I was basing my guess on my misinterpretation of the term “literacy,” which in my geeky brain meant that not only can people read and write, but they are fluent enough to do it on a daily basis. Silly me. I assumed that anyone who could read would be doing it…with joy…as often as possible.

That, friends, is not a valid assumption.

You are here because you’re readers, writers, and thinkers curious about the world. If you’re American, you’re a certain elite segment of the population, probably the12% of the country considered to have a “proficient” level of literacy. You read and write — for information, for understanding, for pleasure.

The evolving definition of literacy

Is the traditional definition of literacy the yardstick we should use to measure skills? Michael J. Gelb, the author of How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, argues that — in addition to basic skills — modern literacy requires a knowledge of computers and a global awareness.

Literacy professor, Diane Barone agrees.

“Literacy used to mean the ability to read and write, but in recent years, that term has become an umbrella for reading, writing and digital skills that run the gamut from typing to intuitively understanding how to interact with both computers and other devices, as well as an early grasp that everything online must be vetted.

The ability to simply read and write at the most basic level is not enough to survive. You also have to have a basic understanding of computers and technology, a requirement that makes it harder and harder for lower economic groups to get ahead.

What’s going wrong?

While 95% of the population of the United States can supposedly read and write at the most basic level, fewer and fewer people are reaching higher levels of literacy. Reading levels are not getting better. They are declining.

The average American reads between the 7th and 8th-grade level. U.S. adults rank 16th out of 23 countries with regard to reading levels, well below Canada, Japan, much of Scandinavia, Germany, Australia, and South Korea.

The level of education needed to understand political speeches is getting lower and lower as well, as indicated by the Fleisch-Kincaid ease-of reading scale posted after each State of the Union address. In 1790, George Washington’s talk scored a 20.4 level, (equivalent to graduate-level education.) The highest ever talk came from James Madison whose oration scored a 25.3. In the last 20 years, our President’s speeches scored between the 8th and 10th-grade reading levels.

There’s nothing wrong with simplifying ideas to make rhetoric easy to understand, but if the majority of our country is unable to read at more than a junior high level, how can we expect to move forward into the future with power? If our reading abilities remain so far behind the rest of the world, what will happen to our ability to innovate and invent, to dream and DO?

book with reading glasses

The discrepancy between literacy and action

If 95% of our population can read and write, why don’t they?

  • Some suggest that it is because lower economic groups can’t afford books and the technology required to attain proficient levels of literacy.

  • Many point to the failure of our schools to adequately address the reading needs of students. Teachers bow to pressure to pass kids from grade to grade without true assessments of reading comprehension.

  • Other blame modern culture for perpetrating the need for speed and quick bytes of information rather than “slow reading” with true understanding.

  • I would wonder if somehow we missed representing reading as a fun, fulfilling adventure, not a chore, but a delight.

The value of reading

Maybe our society doesn’t value the ability to read as much as it used to. Maybe because education is free and available to everyone, learning to read doesn’t seem like such a privilege anymore. Maybe we don’t appreciate the gift of reading because we are inundated by books, websites, advertisements, and an excess of words every day in the world around us. Maybe we think we don’t need reading because we can listen to the news and podcasts instead of consuming it with our eyes.

In other places, particularly in countries where resources are scarce, literacy is prized, not taken for granted.

In her Pulitzer-Prize acceptance lecture of 2007, Doris Lessing wrote about students and schools that were so hungry to learn that they begged for books.

“Please send us books when you get back to London…They taught us to read, but we have no books.”

Lessing declares that reading is the foundation for a real education, that the ability to read increases with practice, and that if we want well-rounded students, reading must be integrated into the curriculum.

“It is common for young men and women, who have had years of education, to know nothing of the world, to have read nothing, knowing only some specialty or other, for instance, computers….Reading, books, used to be part of a general education…And if children cannot read, it is because they have not read.”

4 Conundrums from Doris Lessing's Nobel Lecture

Sad stats

Kofi Annan, the former secretary-general of the United Nations, once said,

“Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope.”

True story, but to get from misery to hope, you must embrace literacy and practice it. Consider these sorrowful statistics on what literacy in America today means:

  • Even though our basic literacy rate is 95%, 36 million people in America still can’t read or write well enough to function in a job.

  • While it’s hard for people like me to believe, (those of us who read as naturally as they breathe,) 24% of the population of the United States hasn’t read a book in the past year…not in any format. Not even one hardcover book, one audiobook, or one digital book.

  • Americans over the age of fifteen, spend less than seventeen minutes per day reading for personal interests. A decade ago, the number was a full four minutes more, with adults reading about 21 minutes a day.

Nearly one-quarter of our population hasn’t enjoyed one book in a year. That, to me, is a national tragedy, a heart-breaking loss of joy that doesn’t equate to a 95% literacy rate at all.

Apparently, the ability to read and actually doing it are two entirely different things.

Scrabble tiles that say, "Read More."


For more insights on the art of reading, go to "The Need to Read."

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