If you couldn’t read, how would you get a job, pay bills or rent an apartment? Adult literacy remains a challenge in the U.S. and why parents, teachers and caregivers must focus on early childhood development.
When I was about seven years old, my dad introduced me to his friend, “Fat Porter”. It sounds like a cruel nickname, but it came off as a term of endearment. Fat Porter was in his early twenties, hefty, and worked at a car dealership as a porter (hence, the nickname), and illiterate. He was also very childlike and would play ball and build snowmen with my brother, sister and I.
I remember clearly the day I learned that Fat Porter was illiterate. My sister had asked him to read a joke printed on a Dixie cup. Fat Porter stared intently at the cup as if trying to decipher what was printed. My dad made light of the situation by grabbing the cup with a big smile and chuckled, “Give me that, you can’t read!”
Later, I asked my dad why Fat Porter couldn’t read. He said that his teachers pushed him through school without holding him back a grade Clearly, he wasn’t progressing in early childhood development. How awful, I’d thought.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, National Institute of Literacy, there are 32 million illiterate Americans. That’s 14% of the U.S. population.
Adult Literacy Begins at Home
While some people who are illiterate have mental or emotional problems, people are functionally illiterate for a variety of reasons. Some dropped out of school. Others came to the U.S. from another country. Still others had ineffective teachers, or were not ready to learn reading when it was taught. The problem, however, does not begin at school, but in the home. The majority of children with illiterate parents become illiterate themselves. Conversely, preschoolers whose parents read to them are better prepared to begin school and perform at higher rates than those not exposed to reading, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The Center for Literacy based in Philadelphia combats this with programs called “family literacy.” The programs are designed to help parents of young children become enthusiastic about learning. This enthusiasm is passed to the children and the cycle of illiteracy is broken.
Illiteracy affects not only the individual’s life, but society as well. Sixty percent of prison inmates are illiterate and 85% of all juvenile offenders have reading problems. According to Nation’s Business Magazine, there are 15 million illiterate employees in the United States today. American businesses pay for this deficiency in a variety of ways: remedial classes given to employees, low productivity, accidents and errors due to illiteracy. The cost runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars each year.
If you are reading this, you are likely already concerned about adult literacy and are engaged in your child’s ability to read. As I teach my boys to read, I often wonder about Fat Porter and the challenges he’s faced being illiterate. But mostly, I hope that he has learned to read, that he’s no longer a statistic.