What’s it take to make it out there? Literacy, that’s what.

Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a formula? Heck, even an instruction book! Here’s what you do, and you’ll be fine . . . Two centuries ago, the German writer Heinrich von Kleist called it the Lebensplan, the idea that planning one’s life extremely effectively could reduced or eliminate the pitfalls. We’ve been trying to figure these things out for longer than human history has been recorded; we’re still working on it . . . but we’ve got some good clues.

Back in February, the Pew Research Center’s Fact Tank published “The skills Americans say kids need to succeed in life,” which – I guess – was yet another effort to declare what “the right way” is.  Topping the list, “Communication” and “Reading” were at #1 and #2, and “Writing” and “Logic” were at #5 and #6. Literacy skills and critical thinking skills. In the accompanying article, we also find out that:

College-educated Americans were more likely to point to communication, writing, logic and science skills as important when compared with those with a high school education or less.

As an English Language Arts teacher, I work all day long trying to inculcate these values. Reading, thinking and writing constitute the ability to receive, understand and share information and ideas. What could be more important? Every “good job” anyone can name requires those skills, even jobs in STEM fields.

Moreover, what does it mean not to have these skills? According to two of DoSomething.org’s 11 facts about literacy in America:

2. 2/3 of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of 4th grade will end up in jail or on welfare. Over 70% of America’s inmates cannot read above a 4th grade level.


5. Nearly 85% of the juveniles who face trial in the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate, proving that there is a close relationship between illiteracy and crime. More than 60% of all inmates are functionally illiterate.

Reading, thinking and writing may not keep a person out of prison, but statistically speaking, it’s in your best interest to know how.

Sadly, too many people, young and old, suffer from illiteracy. I use the word “suffer” appropriately here; to be illiterate is a root cause of which many social ills are the symptoms. Recently, I posted about Grammarly and International Literacy Day— from their infographic, we learn some really ugly truths about how widespread illiteracy still is.

Yet, we can’t take these statistics and make out a set of altruistic proclamations. Statistics tell general truths and shouldn’t dictate specific policies. The current fads with “data-driven” solutions and poll-driven conclusions lack a certain amount of humanity anyway. Let this be clear about this: no one skill can guarantee that a child will “succeed in life.” These pollsters and social scientists and corporate profiteers may be looking at the same stats that I am, but their end-all-be-all products are more about drawing them a paycheck than anything else.

Me, I’m not selling anything, and I know what means more than every workbook and website ever made, more than any curriculum or accountability measure ever designed: reading at home with caring adults. That doesn’t cost a dime, and it works. When the adults at home read to their children, those children achieve greater academic success earlier than those who don’t. Coupling those stats with the ones from DoSomething.org, the gap in potential outcomes, between a child who is read-to versus a child who is not, does not leave much of a choice.

A widespread push for literacy is about more than having a generation of young people who are  “college and career ready.” The stakes are higher than economic boosterism. According to the Literacy Council of Central Alabama website, which operates in the area where I live:

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, approximately 16% of adults in the State of Alabama are functionally illiterate. That means there are more than 92,000 adults in Central Alabama who do not read well enough to earn a GED or fill out a job application or understand the label on a prescription bottle. Illiteracy is a personal tragedy for the person as well as a public dilemma for our community. Many of our state’s ills can be directly attributed to our low levels of education. Of those 92,000 functionally illiterate adults, some are working in menial jobs, some are in prisons or homeless shelters, and many more are living on welfare.  If we could teach these adults to read, what changes would we see in their lives? What changes would we see in our communities?

In the Information Age, literacy is a key component of basic citizenship. Illiteracy is not a crime, but the inability to function in a literate society leaves a person very few options for leading a healthy, productive life. Imagine being unable to read the label on a prescription bottle . . .

If you or someone you know needs help, please find a literacy center near you.

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