Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

OVERCOMINGILLITERACY. If you felt a little confused when you looked at this headline, you've lived just a moment in the disoriented world of the illiterate. Engulfed in a growing flood of print, they lead a daily life of deception, isolation, fear, and low self-esteem. Amazingly, staggering numbers of Americans cannot read. On International Literacy Day, we explore why, in a word-driven society, there are so many to whom letters do not speak.

ADULTS who cannot read cannot look up phone numbers. In restaurants, they always order the house special. Their children's homework is a mystery. They buy cans of Crisco, thinking it's fried chicken, because that's what the picture on the label shows. In the workplace, nonreaders can make mistakes that affect other people's lives. Jonathan Kozol's book ``Illiterate America'' mentions a plane that lost power in three engines because maintenance workers ``didn't read'' the instructions for some small but crucial parts. There's no conclusive evidence that the workmen couldn't read the instructions. But Mr. Kozol notes that these are the kinds of mistakes that people in crucial jobs can make when they can't read.

The economy suffers. Talents go untapped.

About these ads

By generally accepted calculations, 27 million Americans can't read. Another 35 million have deficient skills. And the numbers are growing by 1.5 million a year.

How has this come to pass?

The problem of why so many people aren't able to read is complex. Analysts point to a thorny combination of illness, mobility, migrancy, learning disabilities, the breakdown of the family, television, and poverty. But they throw up their hands at pinpointing any one as definitive.

``People are suddenly not able to read, and we don't understand why,'' says Barbara Harris, project director at the Education Commission of the States. ``Some people say it's a socioeconomic problem. But that's not the real answer, because people a generation or two living in the same conditions learned to read very well.''

It is also true, however, that you could get by without reading in yesterday's farm- and factory-based economy. But today, those kinds of jobs are diminishing, being replaced by jobs requiring higher reading and writing skills. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, by the year 2000, 79 percent of all jobs will be in service industries. Literacy today includes comprehending information in various forms: images (pictures and signs) and schema (flow charts, tables, maps), as well as words. Kozol says you need a 10th-grade education to get along in this technological society.

``Literacy has been so expanded to include all human knowledge, it makes the term useless,'' says Thomas Sticht, president of Applied Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences Inc., who has been designing literacy programs for 20 years.

The world of illiteracy cuts across all spectra of society: inner-city children whose parents also can't read; school dropouts; prison inmates; older people who were pulled from school as children to work on the farm; displaced workers unable to progress when the company modernizes; refugees and immigrants.

About these ads

DETERMINING the number of illiterate people, however, is difficult; a 1975 University of Texas study of adult performance levels indicated that more than 1 in 5 Americans fell short of basic reading abili-ties they need day to day. Today, that would amount to about 27 million people. Other estimates range from 9 million to 30 million.

But some people question those figures.

``The census form for literacy has 20 questions. Miss one, and you're termed illiterate,'' says Peter Gerber, director of education programs at the MacArthur Foundation, which funds studies and projects on illiteracy.

``It's not a black or white issue,'' he says. ``Many illiterate people have jobs, families, own their own homes.''

Part of the problem is in defining illiteracy itself. The definition has changed over the years. In 1886, it was the ability to sign one's name (that's still true in many third-world countries). In 1940, it meant completing the sixth grade - something only 11 percent of the population achieved.

By those standards, the picture for young white Americans today is far better. In 1986, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found that 94 percent of the white respondents aged 21 to 25 read at least at the level of fourth-grade students. And 80 percent read at or above the eighth-grade level.

BUT that leaves 20 percent who don't achieve the reading proficiency of eighth-grade students; and the rates for blacks and minorities was even bleaker. An eighth-grade reading competence is today's accepted standard for literacy. That's what you need to read the instructions on a TV dinner. To understand your federal income-tax forms takes 10th-grade competence. A lease: college.

According to the 1986 NAEP study, young minorities were the ones most in need. ``You see a disproportional representation by minorities,'' says Irwin Kirsch, an NAEP research scientist. ``...we predict that illiteracy will get worse and we'll have a society more divided along racial and economic lines if we just maintain the status quo.''

Jeanne S. Chall, director of the Reading Laboratory at Harvard University, who has been studying how people learn to read for 40 years, notes that communities and the federal government have not been supporting schools as they have in the past.

``Many remedial-reading teachers were fired in the early '80s,'' Dr. Chall says. ``Library support from the federal government has gone down. Some schools don't have even libraries. We've got to have them.''

``There are probably as many factors as there are people who can't read well,'' says Jonathan McKallip, vice-president of field services at the Literacy Volunteers of America. ``The media want to say it's the schools' fault. But there are other factors, too. Because it's so hard to pinpoint, let's move on and do something about it.''

The government, business world, news media, educators, and private agencies are all doing doing something about it, sometimes together. Tutoring projects can be found in storefront programs and YMCAs in many cities. Business, concerned about the dearth of qualified workers for entry-level jobs, is sponsoring both in-house and community literacy programs.

Since illiteracy is rapidly becoming an intergenerational problem, many in the field are finding it necessary to work with the whole family. ``There's a very well-established relationship between a mother's education and a kid's performance in school,'' says Chall. In April, Congress approved the Even Start education program, a $50 million-a-year program that seeks to integrate early-childhood education and adult education into single programs.

Tutoring adults takes patience and commitment on the part of both tutor and student. ``Teaching someone to read is not an easy proposition,'' says Karl Haigler, director of the US Department of Education's Adult Literacy Initiative and Adult Education. ``It takes 75 to 100 hours to advance one grade level, and a year's commitment of time.'' But once nonreaders take the enormous step of seeking help, they're often highly motivated.

Says Linda Lowen, public relations assistant at Literacy Volunteers of America: ``Adult learners become tired of the deception, of having to rely on someone else to read for them.''


Yahya Warith owns a mortgage company in Richmond, Va. Previously he was involved in real estate, owned dry-cleaning businesses, restaurants, and a skating rink, and was a promoter for black celebrities.

Mr. Warith, dapper in a cool, gray suit and rose silk tie, exudes the quiet confidence of the successful. But one year ago, he could not read or write. He owned restaurants, but could not read his own menus. How he got to where he is without those skills is a story....

`I left home at the age of 7,'' Yahya Warith said, leaning back in a raspberry-colored chair in the Hyatt Hotel in Baltimore. ``My mother and stepfather were sharecroppers. I heard my mother ask my stepfather how we did that year. He told her that we broke even. I asked her what that meant. She said it meant that we didn't make no money. I said, `You mean we did all this work and we didn't make no money?...'

``The farm we lived on as sharecroppers, the gentleman said, `[If] that boy don't come up here and have work, we're going to put you all off the farm. So my mother told me, `I'm not going to allow you to put me out of my house - you gonna have to work.' That's when I left home. Because I refused to work for nothing.''

Warith stayed with an aunt for two weeks, then lived on the streets, living out of abandoned cars and warehouses. He did odd jobs, going door to door. Then a white woman took him in as a houseboy.

He went to school for a year and a half. ``But my mother and teachers told me that I would never amount to anything.''

At 15 he started working for hotels, then married at 18. Warith started working for a promoter, learned how to emcee shows. Then Warith started promoting on his own, setting up tours for Gladys Knight and the Pips, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder. ``All this time I didn't know my ABCs. The promoter didn't know, no one knew.''

He learned to make adjustments for not reading. ``When I would go to a restaurant, I would look at what most people had on their plates, and if it was something that looked good to me, I would ask what the special is.''

At work, ``each time I went to do a contract, I would look at it like I was speed-reading, then I'd say to the person, `Ma'am or sir, read this so I can know that you have a full understanding of this and tell me your interpretation.' So the clients would read the contract to me. That's how I got away with it.

His wife knew, but his banker and lawyer didn't. The banks would write the checks out for him, as they do for many ``big shot'' customers, and thought nothing of it. While there was no one incident that exposed his deception, he says, there were close calls.

``One time me and my wife were at the lieutenant governor's ball, when I was passed a note by my attorney of 25 years. I couldn't read what he wanted me to do or say. Finally, I was able to give my wife a nod and pass the note to her under the table.''

But last September something happened that changed everything. He saw ``Bluffing It,'' a TV movie starring Dennis Weaver about a good worker who keeps losing his jobs because he can't read.

``Whenever there was reading, he got one of the guys on the job and said, `Read this for me.' But the part that got me was when he started driving a truck and got into a wreck with a car carrying a family. He saw a telephone and called 911. The dispatcher asked him, `Where are you?' The guy says, `a major highway.' The dispatcher asked him what the sign said. He put that phone on his chest and said, `I cannot read.' And he cried. And I saw right away my family was in that car. I said, I'm going to school.''

Warith decided he wanted to get a white teacher outside his community, to protect his anonymity. He talked the head of a volunteer tutoring program into teaching him five days a week instead of one.

Today he's between second- and third-grade levels, reading stories about how to write checks, in books specially written for adult new readers.

``I feel great now,'' he says, standing up to shake hands. ``I'm out of the shell. I was in a shell for 48 years. I thought my true success was making money. But it's really learning to read and write. It's not embarrassing to me now, because I'm doing something about it. My goal is to get my GED, go to Howard University to be a lawyer. And I want to read the Wall Street Journal. And the Bible.''


INTERNATIONAL Literacy Day is not a celebration, but a call to arms.

Three years ago, the push began to alert the nation to the urgent state of illiteracy. One of the largest efforts started in 1985, with Project Literacy USA (PLUS), a union of the American Broadcasting Companies (ABC) and the Public Broadcasting Service to promote illiteracy awareness through TV programs and public-service announcements.

Last year the focus was on illiteracy in the workplace, and PBS produced the films ``A Job to Be Done'' and ``A Chance to Learn.'' ABC produced a movie-of-the-week called ``Bluffing It'' and eight other prime-time shows, and wove the illiteracy theme into sports programming, news, children's programs, and soap operas. This year's focus is youth illiteracy. PLUS also has 366 task forces nationwide and is supported by 131 literacy groups.

The American Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation spearheaded a 1986 drive to get newspapers involved, and to designate today as National Newspaper Literacy Day. Some papers have their own literacy programs. Others have held spelling bees to raise money for existing programs; set up in-house literacy classes; awarded grants; sponsored TV announcements of literacy hot lines; printed series on illiteracy; and awarded subscriptions to new readers who advance a level.

Some newspapers are rewriting stories to attract new adult readers. The Herald & Review in Decatur, Ill., publishes READ: The News, a monthly literacy newspaper written at a 4th- to 9th-grade reading level and published in the Monday edition.

PLACES TO GET HELP: Contact Center Literacy Hotline (Lincoln, Neb.) A national toll-free hot line that will refer callers to the literacy program in their area. 1-800-228-8813

Laubach Literacy International 1320 Jamesville Ave. Syracuse, N.Y. 13210 750 literacy councils in 45 states

Literacy Volunteers of America 5795 Widewaters Parkway Syracuse, N.Y. 13214 300 programs in 35 states

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.