Success Rate of Reading Education in the USA

National literacy rates range from about 10 percent to 99+ percent. Frank C. Laubach’s books Teaching the World to Read and Forty Years With the Silent Billion detail much of his experience in teaching in 300 or more languages around the world. In teaching adults to read in languages other than English, he never once mentions being unable to teach some of his students to become fluent readers. When he makes the statement that “Over 90 percent of the world's languages have one sound for a letter and one letter for a sound. In such languages learning to read is swift and easy, requiring from one to twenty days.” it implies that they all learned to read. It follows that the literacy rates in non-English speaking countries is—-more than anything else-—a measure of the percentage of the population that has had reading training.

Unlike some other nations, which do not enforce universal education for all citizens, U.S. children are required to be in school until their mid-teens. It is in the short-term best interests of politicians and educators to believe the U.S. Census Bureau reports that the U.S. literacy rate is 90 percent or more. There is not necessarily any conscious deception, but a brief study of how the Census Bureau made this determination will reveal why the reported figure can be so much higher than the true literacy rate.

The Census Bureau has included questions about literacy in each census from 1840 to 1930. Many of those most knowledgeable about U.S. literacy believe that literacy began to drop in the early 1960s and has been declining ever since.Thomas Sowell, Inside American Education (New York: The Free Press, 1993), p. 1 and elsewhere; David Barton, The Myth of Separation (Aledo, Texas: Wallbuilder Press, 1992), p. 212 and elsewhere. (See also pp. 209–216.); William J. Bennett, Ph.D., The Devaluing of America (New York: Touchstone, 1992), p. 55; William J. Bennett, Ph.D., The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators (New York: Touchstone, 1994), pp. 82–84. The Census Bureau reintroduced questions about literacy in 1970 at the insistence of the military.

In the 1970 census the only question asked about literacy was on grade completion. The Census Bureau considered those with fifth-grade completion or higher to be literate. A little more than 5 percent reported less than a fifth-grade education. For some reason, the Census Bureau decided that 80 percent of these could read, so they reported 99 percent literacy.

In 1980 the Census Bureau mailed out forms and based most of their calculations upon written responses to questions about grade completion. In addition they used a small sample of home visits and telephone interviews. They asked people what grade they had completed. If the answer was “Less than fifth grade,” they asked if the person could read and write. As explained in Jonathan Kozol’s book Illiterate America, this technique of determining literacy is almost certain to underestimate illiteracy.U.S. Census Bureau methods of determining illiteracy is almost certain to underestimate the level of illiteracy for the following reasons:

    Illiterates would not respond to written forms, and their family members—-likely also to be illiterate-—would not either.
    The underprivileged poor, and especially illiterates, may feel they are being singled out like criminals. They therefore have cause to distrust salespersons, bill collectors, or strangers knocking on their door seeking information—-especially if the answers to the questions would be embarrassing. Home visits by Census Bureau officials who are not known by the person answering the door cannot be expected to yield accurate information under such circumstances.
    Grade-level completion does NOT equal grade-level competence.
    Those who have no permanent address, no phone number, no post office box, or no regular job—-a condition shared by almost six million people, most of whom are illiterate-—often are not counted. They can’t be found by the Census Bureau in time for the census.

Because U.S. schools since the 1930s have mostly taught by the whole word method (or the whole language method) and due to new time-consuming pleasurable activities and negative influences explained below, roughly 46 to 51 percent of U.S. adults are now functionally illiterate. See Irwin S. Kirsch, et al., Adult Literacy in America http://nces.ed.gov/pubs93/93275.pdf. pp. xvi, 63, 65, and 66 and http://nces.ed.gov/NAAL/PDF/2006470.PDF. Few if any non-English speaking nations use the whole word teaching method.They do not have to; phonics works for their language because it follows the alphabetic principle: the words are almost entirely spelled as they sound.

    dozens of scholars for the last 250 years have recommended solving the problem of English spelling—rather than merely fighting the symptoms of the problem-—by making the spelling phonetic.
    Several nations both smaller and larger than the U.S. have simplified their spelling systems.
    A simple, logical phonemic spelling system has been proven effective for teaching students students to read in less than three months in 300 or more alphabetic languages.
 

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