The Hard Truth About Literacy in America

While we have a month set aside to celebrate literacy, we must face the hard reality that America is facing a literacy crisis of epidemic proportions. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) twenty-five, million children in the United States cannot read proficiently. NAEP data also shows that fourth-grade reading scores decreased from 2017 to 2019. According to the U.S. Department of Education 54% of adults ages 16 to 74, roughly 130 million people, read below the sixth-grade level. This data sets the stage for a never-ending cycle of educational and economic disadvantage for our children and adults. Reading and writing skills are important not only for richer and more diverse lives, but they are key tools in our daily lives that allow us to participate fully in the socioeconomic development of our communities. It is vital that we understand and work to end this downward literacy spiral.

Why is this happening?

Literacy is one of the most important skills for children, yet there are a number of barriers that prevent them from being successful with reading and writing.

  • Pedagogy – Are we teaching reading using methods that are strategic and systematic and that ensure students have an understanding of all aspects of reading? Is there a focus on writing skills where modeling is explicit and practice is supported? Data suggests that we aren’t. Ever hear of the “reading wars?” This refers to the disagreement between whether we should be teaching using phonics or whether we should be teaching using a Whole Word/Balanced Literacy approach. In the video, Reading Wars: Phonics vs. Whole Word highlights some important information from a Health and Human Resources study about Attentional Focus During Learning. It addresses how the brain sees images and words and the parts of the brain that are engaged when learning words. Where we focus our attention matters to how we learn, the brain is a powerful tool and adapts to build powerful skills that are retained.
  • Socioeconomics, Race, Gender, and Other Factors – Studies show that 34% of low-income children enter kindergarten lacking basic skills to learn to read. They are practically set up for failure before they’ve even begun. NAEP reading test data from 2019 shows the following data at the fourth-grade level.
    • Race – Statistics show that 52% of Black students, 45% of Hispanic students, and 50% of American Indians read below basic reading level.
    • Gender – Males had lower results
    • Socioeconomic – Students who were eligible for the National School Lunch Program had significantly lower results than those who weren’t eligible
    • Disabilities – Students with known disabilities scored significantly lower than those without disabilities
    • Type of School – Public school students scored lower than Private School students
    • Location – Students in the city scored lower than those in suburban, town and rural areas
  • Accessibility – The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides protection for students with known disabilities, but there are many instances where students may have unknown or undiagnosed disabilities. Teachers and parents may not be readily aware that a student is struggling with vision issues, with dyslexia, or other barriers keeping them from learning. Classrooms should be equipped with tools to accommodate students with all sorts of learning styles and abilities. Students without proper access become lost and often continue to struggle and fall further behind.

These statistics are staggering, but not insurmountable. As an educational community, we have the responsibility and the tools to turn this literacy spiral into a literacy climb one step, one child at a time.

In the weeks to come, we’ll share important tools and resources to bridge the reading and writing gaps.

Teia Hoover Baker is an educator, published author, and entrepreneur. She is an innovative, devoted educator whose career has been dedicated to coordinating programs that support struggling learners. Her passion is meeting students where they are and guiding them to excel. Her main focus is always what is best for children. Teia holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism and a Master’s of Education. In her spare time, she enjoys being Lovie to her growing grandchildren.

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