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Literacy in America

Nina Yu
COMM 2500
December 5, 2018
Literacy in America has struggled since the 1980s. Adult illiteracy is at a high with

approximately 32 million American adults who cannot read or write (Huffington Post, 2013).

While being able to read or write usually requires basic education, these adults have not been

benefited with that opportunity. This especially poses a problem for their offspring. Children

who grow up in environments where their parents are illiterate have a lower chance themselves

to become literate. This then continues the cycle of being illiterate. Reading and writing are in

the very basics of general education, but also it is very, very beneficial to be able to do those

things in today’s society. People who cannot read in America struggle with everyday tasks.

There are few places in America that help people like this.

When I went to New York this past fall break, we visited Chinatown. I learned there that

the people who immigrated over from mainland China never get the opportunity to learn English,

because they simply don’t need to. While these people have it good in Chinatown, they might not

get so lucky living in a wildly diverse suburban town. Literacy in America isn’t just a recent

issue. The problems stem from the beginning. To be able to understand the rate of illiteracy in

America, we need to look at the roots of literacy in America and what happened to it to make it

stem into the big problem that it is today.

Looking into history, literacy has long been used a method of social control and

oppression (The Room 241 Team, 2018). Being able to be literate was only granted to those who

were rich, powerful, and of course, those who were white males. They were taught the basics and

more, because they were the ones who worked and traveled for the family so they had to have

these skills. Of course, that was a sad thing as well. The women of the time were strictly

forbidden to learn the basics of reading and writing, because their primary job was to do

household chores and take care of the children (I am speaking of the Victorian era, but it still

happened in the U.S. as well). This blossomed a practice that still takes place today. We then

come across the slavery era. There was The Alabama Slave Code placed in 1833 that restricted

slaves’ lives depending where they worked. The codes controlled education, marriages, and

employment. They were scared to have slaves read, because then they could access information

that would make them understand their rights. Slave owners made it their goal to keep slaves

uneducated and powerless, because they understood the power of literacy (The Took 241 Team,

2018). A great example of this power quoted from the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass

reads, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”

Why exactly was literacy used for such methods such as social control and oppression?

Social control is defined as an enforcement of conformity by society upon its members, either by

law or by social pressure. I believe this really makes the saying, “Helping the rich get richer and

the poor get poorer.” Literacy is a great addition to this saying. People who held the ability and

right to read and write took more benefits for themselves than those who were illiterate. Using

oppression is just as terrible, but it has happened for years, especially with women. Educated the

female population was a priority until the early 1900s. Even so, women attending college was a

rarity until the 1960s. Somehow twisting it back to the Victorian era in the U.K., early

Americans had the guts to think it was a waste to educate women. They believed that women

were solely there to run the home and raise the family. This did not help women in the process of

gaining their rights. Thankfully, women like Alice Paul and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were strong

figures in this battle and made it for us.

With a better understanding of the history of literacy in America, we come to some

factors that limit people and society when they are illiterate. Children that grow up not being able

to read have a harder time later in their adult life. According to the Department of Justice, “The

link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading

failure.” Some might call hogwash on this, but there are stats that actually back up the claim.

There are 85 percent of juveniles who clash with the court system, because they are illiterate.

Over 70 percent of America’s inmates cannot read above a fourth grade level. That is pretty sad,

America. For one, not being able to read starting as a child will most likely catch up to them as

an adult. It makes it a struggle to live and do everyday tasks. For the individual, they have

limited ability to obtain and understand essential information, their rate of unemployment is 2-4

times greater than those with little schooling. Even if they do manage to get a job, the job is most

likely to be of a lower-quality and therefore they get lower pay. Adults who are unable to read

usually give little value to education, so that’s why there is a cycle of illiteracy. They might have

a lower self-esteem, which can lead to isolation. The most important impact on an individual is

their health. When they are illiterate, they can have more accidents and misuse medication,

simply because they cannot read and understand the relevant information (Strauss, 2016). As for

the society, when we have a lot of adults who cannot read, it impacts the economy. Many

positions remain open for they do not have people who are well-read enough to hold them.

According to ​The Washington Post​, the higher the proportion of adults with low literacy

proficiency is, the slower the overall long-term GDP growth is. Society is highly impacted when

illiterate adults fail or have difficulty understanding societal issues. It lowers the level of

community development as well as civic participation.

The second issue I want to focus on is health. It has been briefly stated in the first part as

part of why illiteracy can affect one’s health. In this part, I will dive deeper into the issue and

why it impacts society as well. In 1990, members of the National Governors’ Association, one of

the six goals that they came up with states, “By the year 2000, every adult American will be

literate and will possess the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in a global economy and

exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship” (Kirsch, Jungeblut, Jenkins, Kolstad,

2002). This journal and one of the six goals did not come true, unfortunately. Stated before,

approximately 32 million American adults cannot read or write. This journal brings up a good

point where they state, “Because it is impossible to say precisely what literacy skills are essential

for individuals to succeed in this or any society.” That may be true to some point, but for an

American adult to function normally in life, where they have to purchase items, take care of their

health, and know where they are going, they do need the basics of reading and writing.

Healthcare is a very important matter when it comes to being able to read. Patients need to know

what is going on with their health and what to take to recover. Even if a doctor is able to explain

everything to them, what if it comes time to take their medication? What if they forget the

dosage, but can’t read what it says? What happens then? In an article written by Paul P. Lee,

MD, JD, he says that after analyzing the readability of patient education materials, discharge

instructions, and consent forms, these materials have been found to be written at too complex a

level for many or most patients. If it’s already pretty difficult for people who can read, then how

difficult is it for those who can’t? The U.S. has a very complex healthcare system. There are so

many forms of healthcare and insurance ways to cover the costs that if it’s difficult for one to

read it and understand it fully, then it only becomes harder. Patients who fail to understand their

conditions limits their ability to participate in medical care decisions and how they want to be

cared for. For the medical society, not only is it harder for doctors and health professionals to

explain healthcare problems to illiterate patients, but there might be more blame directed at them

if the patient makes a mistake.

Reading and writing are two of the most basic, but important things one should learn. It

makes it easier to function in normal society and helps the overall community to grow together.

The individual will be able to live a more fulfilling life as well. Getting news, medical

information, and other resources all require some basic literacy skills. If America starts helping

illiterate adults now, then there is hope in the future that we will live in a completely literate


Works Cited

“Illiteracy in America: Troubling Statistics and How Schools Can Help.” ​Concordia
University-Portland,​ The Room 241 Team, 7 Nov. 2018,

Organization. “1 In 7 Americans Can't Read This Headline- And That Hasn't Changed In 10
Years.” ​The Huffington Post​,, 28 Nov. 2017,

Strauss, Valerie. “Hiding in Plain Sight: The Adult Literacy Crisis.” ​The Washington Post​, WP
Company, 1 Nov. 2016,

Lee, Paul P. “Why Literacy Matters.” ​JAMA​, American Medical Association, 1 Jan. 1999,

“Slavery and the Making of America . The Slave Experience: Education, Arts, & Culture | PBS.”
Thirteen,​ MetroFocus,

Kirsch, Irwin S., Jungeblut, Ann, Jenkins, Lynn, Kolstad, Andrew. “Adult Literacy in America.”
National Center for Education Statistics ​3rd Edition (2002): 176. Print.

Vágvölgyi, Réka, Coldea, Andra, Dresler, Thomas, Schrader, Josef, Nuerk, Hans-Christoph. “A
Review about Functional Illiteracy: Definition, Cognitive, Linguistic, and Numerical Aspects.”
Frontiers in Psychology ​7 (2016): Print.