Across the U.S. fully 43% of adults read at a grade 8 level or lower. Broken down, 29% can only read at an eighth grade level, and 14% can only grasp material at a fifth grade level or lower.
Throughout the country, thousands of adults are functionally illiterate, which can have a lasting negative impact on their day-to-day lives. Early childhood is a crucial time to set the right path for literacy. An interest in reading is often determined as early as first grade, with fourth-grade reading levels being an indicator of future success. Research shows that children who struggle to read in first grade are 88% more likely to struggle in grade four. And those who struggle in fourth grade are four times more likely to drop out of school.
Reading levels vary by state, and by ethnic group and class. In Kansas, for example, at least 8% of the population lacks basic literacy skills, and 8% of adults don’t receive a high-school diploma. In some counties, these numbers are much higher — as much as 32% of the population in some areas may lack basic literacy skills. Illiteracy rates are also generally higher for minority populations and those living in poverty. In Kansas half of African-American and at least a third of Hispanic students are not proficient in reading and math. The numbers for all fourth-grade students who do not meet proficiencies may actually be closer to half.
Illiteracy numbers are also high for those who are incarcerated. Across the U.S., 85% of juveniles who interact with the court system are functionally illiterate, and 60% of the nation’s inmates are illiterate. These numbers boggle the mind. And literacy levels have been shown to have a direct correlation with each person’s future success rates, or the likelihood they’ll become involved in the criminal justice system. Prisons actually base some of their future planning on third and fourth-grade literacy rates.
In order to reduce crime and narrow the school-to-prison pipeline, it’s crucial to tackle the issue of widespread illiteracy in this country. Schools need adequate funding, class sizes must be reduced, qualified teachers need access to more resources, and community programs need to be supported and expanded. The benefits of a literate population are myriad: safer communities, better futures and earning potential for youth and for formerly incarcerated individuals, and increased financial savings in the long run, as rates of recidivism are reduced when prisoners have access to education and training. Literacy is fundamental, and right now, our school system is failing countless students who need access to better resources and to books.
One example of a program helping address this issue in Kansas is Storytime Village, which aims to inspire a life-long love for reading, and provides access to books and family literacy programs. Through the program, parents, schools, and community organizations work together to close the achievement gap for Kansas students, particularly for underserved students who have limited access to resources. The Storytime Village initiative includes family literacy nights, book buddies and book distributions. Programs such as this have a direct impact on the lives of participants and their futures.
The simple solution to increasing literacy rates is to start by picking up a book and reading. Read for yourself, read to children, read to others in the community, and support local libraries and early educators. Support community programs like Storytime Village, and the numerous programs that put books into the hands of prisoners. As Frederick Douglass said, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com and PrisonerResource.com.