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The Fall of Literacy

Addressing the declining U.S. literacy rates and

opportunities to improve the K-12 education system


Introduction 1

The state of literacy in America 2

The impact of illiteracy 4

The necessity of reform 4

Closing statement 6


Reading and writing are the building blocks of all other forms of
learning and the indisputable literacy decline in America should be an
immediate cause for concern. The success of our country rests on the
competency of the citizens who contribute to it, and our only hope for social and
economic success is to have well-informed, educated citizens capable of making the
best choices for the commonwealth. This paper will highlight some of the current
issues with literacy in America and the impact that they have on our nations
wellbeing. In addition to providing context regarding this educational emergency,
multiple solutions are provided, aimed to improve that decline, which focus
specifically on the necessity of K-12 education reform. This information is intended
to be utilized by school administrators and/or state officials in the hopes of
improving education standards in America and moving up in the ranks of world


The Oxford English Dictionary defines literacy as the ability to read or write;
competence or knowledge in a certain area. The National Center of Education
Statistics expands upon this definition, stating: Literacy is understanding,
evaluating, using and engaging with written text to participate in the society, to
achieve one's goals and to develop one's knowledge and potential. It is in the latter
definition that we may observe the true necessity of a proficiently literate
population. According to the Literacy Project Foundation, the U.S. ranked 12 th in
literacy out of 20 countries surveyed. The problem is advancing rapidly, to the
extent that now 44 million American adults are not able to read their children
bedtime stories; 50% of adults cannot read a book at an eighth-grade level; and 45
million are considered functionally illiterate with a reading level no higher than
fifth grade (Literacy Project Foundation). A survey conducted for The Chronicles of
Higher-Education determined that 84% of university faculty members concluded
that high-school graduates are either unprepared or are only slightly prepared to
pursue a college degree (Rothman, 95). These findings insinuate that despite
perceived academic success, Americans still struggle to apply literacy to tasks other
than the basic levels of operation.

Figure 1 (see below) shows a chart that maps literacy proficiency in the United
States in adults ranging from 16-24 years of age. The study was taken in 2014 and
divides results into four categories: levels 1-4/5. These levels represent literacy
points that range from below basic to proficient/advanced. The competency and
task capabilities, as described by the National Center of Education Statistics, are
summarized below.

Below basic (level 1): Individuals at this level range from non-literate to being
capable of very simple tasks, such as signing a form or adding amounts on a bank
deposit slip. No more than very concrete literary skills are present.
Basic (level 2): Individuals possess the ability to perform simple, common-day
literary tasks. These tasks include reading and understanding information within a
short prose (nonlyrical, plain) text, extracting information from a pamphlet,
using/interpreting a television program guide.
Intermediate (level 3): Individuals possesses necessary skills to performing
moderately difficult literary tasks. These tasks include, reading/understanding
moderately dense prose texts and making simple inferences about the text; reading
and identifying important information within a complex document; locating a
specific location on a map; locating quantitative information that is less familiar to
the individual.

Proficient/Advanced (level 4/5): The individual possesses the necessary skills
to perform advanced and challenging literary tasks. Individual can read and
understanding lengthy, complex, abstract texts and develop complex inferences
regarding them; locate quantitative material that is abstract; synthesize
information; compare complex pieces of texts and extract purpose and intent. Such
individuals can apply literacy wholly and purposefully to develop new, meaningful
insight about the world around them.

Figure 1: Source taken from the National Center of Education Statistics. Survey conducted in 2014.

This information shows that even among individuals (within the range of 16-24
years of age) whose only role is that of a student, only 13% (of the total 29%) scored
within the 4/5 level of literacy proficiency. Yet, the positive side is that there is a
direct correlation between higher literacy rates and education. This emphasizes the
need to reform education standards and refocus the nations priorities toward
educating for up-and-coming generations.


ECONOMIC IMPACT: Illiteracy costs American Taxpayers around $20 billion a

year; School dropouts cost our country $240 billion dollars a year in lost tax
revenues and social services expenditures (Literacy Project Foundation). The 2003
National Assessment of Adult Literacy, conducted by the U.S. Department of
Education, showed that low literate adults are less likely to vote than strong
readers (Central Georgia Tech). 20 million American adults cannot read
sufficiently enough to fill out a job application (Central Georgia Tech). Illiteracy
rates costs Americans millions in unproductivity costs and an alarming rate cannot
even fill out an application that would lead to gaining a job, stimulating the
economy, and being a productive member of society.

SOCIETAL IMPACT: According to the Literacy Project Foundation:

Approximately 50% of Americans read so poorly that they are unable to perform
simple tasks such as reading prescription drug labels AND 3/5 people in
American prisons cant read. 20 million Americans over the age of 16 cannot read
a story written above an 8 th grade level in the newspaper (Central Georgia Tech).
Illiteracy rates threaten social progression and stimulation in multiple respects.
The correlation between illiteracy and crime, as well as unregistered voters and
failed interpretation of the nations media, are all reasons to address the declining
rates of literacy in America.


Emphasis must be placed on reforming K-12 Education (k-12 refers specifically to
kindergarten through 12 th grade). The earlier an individual develops reading and
comprehension skills, the more able they are to develop their own set of learning
heuristics allowing them to adapt and expand alongside their education which
increases in difficulty each year .

Figure 2: Source taken from National Assessment of Adult Literacy (Accessed through NCES website).

The following passage lists a variety of potential solution to the literacy decline by
focusing on specific actions that can be taken to improve the k-12 education system,
giving our nations literacy potential the support it needs to flourish at the earliest
possible chance. Extracted from the Peabody Journal of Education, the article
Introduction to the Special Issue on the Single Best Idea for Improving K-12
Education by Jay P. Greene highlights several methods to reforming early
childcare education.

The first method suggests that merit-pay for teachers is one of the most effective
potentials for success regarding early childhood education. Typically, in our current
society, teacher pay is based largely on the types of advanced degree in which they
have obtained and overall experience. Greene (and the colleagues to whom he
credits this idea) asserts that an educators pay should be based solely on their
contribution to the growth of the childrens education. Greene argues that the
factors that determine how teachers are currently paid does little to encourage or
support increased student learning. Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique
[or content standards, for that matter]: good teaching comes from the identity and
integrity of the teacher (Rothman, 103). Teachers are the foundation, and often the
sole source, of a childs education. This notion of pay-by-performance could serve
to effectively increase the motivation of existing teachers [and draw] more highly
qualified people to the teaching profession over time (Greene, 550).

Another method for improving k-12 education, according to the Peabody Journal
of Education, suggests that preschool is the best way to improve the education
program. Preschool has been proven to aid in the transition from unstructured to
structured life (pre-academic settings to the more academic-like setting of
kindergarten). Preschool aids a childs social and academic development by
implementing the aspect of learning into the necessary role of play time. A child
becomes comfortable with teachers, classmates, and the idea of having outcomes
and expectations that will help them become more relaxed, eager and prepared
students upon entering the k-12 system. Greene also asserts that offering high-
quality, free preschool, especially to low-income students will help to lower the
disparity that exists between the socio-economic statuses, allowing all children
equal access to the resources that are necessary to build a strong foundation for
future learning.

By implementing merit pay to improve motivation among educators and attract
well-qualified teachers to the profession, as well as providing free preschool
education to American citizens in preparation for their future scholastic careers,
the k-12 education has the potential to see genuine improvements. By improving
the k-12 education system, learning and comprehension will begin at a much higher
rate; thus, guaranteeing students with an education that will set them up for firm
literacy achievement. By focusing on improving the nations literacy rate, we will
breed generations of educated, insightful and productive members of society who
will grow to help improve and advance the social, economic and political conditions
of the United States of America.

1. Literacy Project Foundation - Statistics." Literacy Project Foundation - Statistics. N.p.,
n.d. Web. 22 Feb 2017.
2. Rothman, David J. "The Crisis of Literacy and the Courage to Teach." Academic
Questions 20.2 (2007): 94-111. Web.
3. Waldfogel, Jane. "The Role of Out-of-School Factors in the Literacy Problem." The
Future of Children 22.2 (2012): 39-54. Web.
4. Technical, Central Georgia. Adult education programs. 2011. Web. 26 Feb. 2017.
5. "National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Home Page, a part of the U.S.
Department of Education." National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Home Page,
a part of the U.S. Department of Education. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Mar. 2017.
6. Greene, Jay P. Introduction to the Special Issue on the Single Best Idea for Improving
K-12 Education. Peabody Journal of Education, vol. 82, no. 4, 2007, pp. 549550.