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Ashley Stryker

VIEWS: 4 PAGES: 8

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Ashley Stryker

Professor Robin Kramer

April 16, 2010

LA 101H

                              Reading the Signs: Illiteracy in America

       In 1998, the Workforce Investment Act defined literacy as “an individual‟s ability to

read, write, and speak in English, compute, and solve problems, at levels of proficiency

necessary to function on the job, in the family of the individual, and in society” (United States).

In 2003, the National Assessment of Adult Literacy—NAAL—used this definition to declare an

adult literate if her or she could “[use] printed and written information to function in society, to

achieve one‟s goals, and to develop one‟s knowledge and potential” (Kutner). Those individuals

who are classified as illiterate, then, can write their name or read a street sign, but cannot read

the potential side effects of medication on a bottle or the daily newspaper (Britt). According to

NAAL, 14% of adult Americans would be unable to read and understand this sentence

(“Demographics”). Illiterate individuals cannot contribute to society like those who are fully

literate are able to do, and represent a drain on the collective American finances. If number of

illiterate American adults America is to decrease and allow for their assimilation into more

functional and productive levels of society, provisions for their education in basic reading and

writing skills must be made at the local level and attendance enforced by the federal level.

       Illiteracy is a modern and widespread issue, as recent studies have shown. Sponsored by

the National Center for Education Statistics within the US Department of Education, NAAL‟s

study in 2003 was designed to represent the entire American population and included over

19,000 adult participants, “adult” meaning those 16 years of age or older (“What”). NAAL
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group participants into one of four levels of prose literacy, based on results of a written exam:

Below Basic, Basic, Intermediate, and Proficient. Those who scored at the Below Basic level

had “no more than the most simple [sic] and concrete [sic] literacy skills.” 14% of participants

scored Below Basic on their exam, and NAAL extrapolated to estimate that 30 million

Americans would have scored Below Basic, as well, and therefore would be considered illiterate.

(“Demographics”)

       NAAL‟s study indicates a correlation between those who scored Below Basic—those

who are illiterate—and a lack of economic success. 55% of those at the Below Basic level did

not graduate high school and receive their diploma (“Demographics”). Not receiving a high

school diploma or a General Equivalency Diploma—GED—often indicates a lower earning

potential. The US Census Bureau found in a 2002 report that non-graduates working full-time in

1999 earned $23,400 yearly on average, as opposed to graduates, who earned $30,400. Those

with professional degrees earned the most at $109,600 annually, and individuals with bachelor

degrees could expect to make $52,000—almost twice what those who did not graduate high

school could reasonably expect to earn in a year. (Day)

       A lack of monetary success can prevent individuals from achieving economic self-

sufficiency, thus forcing them to lean on public welfare programs. In 1996, for example, 35% of

individuals enrolled in the federal welfare program “Temporary Assistance to Needy Families,”

or TANF, were found to have literacy abilities at the Below Basic level in the NAAL study, and

an additional 41% were at the Basic level—individuals at this level are unable to use a bus

schedule or a calculator to find 10% of a total amount (Levenson). A whopping 76% of those

enrolled in TANF, then, were unable to process written information well enough to function in

society; in other words, they were illiterate. ProLiteracy, an organization promoting adult
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learning programs both within the United States and around the world, estimates that low literacy

levels cost the United States at least $225 billion dollars every year because of loss of tax

revenue due to unemployment, lack of productivity in the workforce, and crime (ProLiteracy).

       Clearly, then, adult illiteracy is a real problem with obvious economic ramifications on

the country as a whole, not just on those individuals immediately affected, and a solution must be

implemented to stem illiteracy, if not eradicate it entirely. There are efforts already happening to

help with this problem, such as learning centers catering to adults within the community. With

the help of trained volunteers, adults can learn basic literacy skills with which to succeed in their

professional and personal lives. The federal government indicated its support of this solution

when President Obama signed a $35 million increase for the “21st Century Learning Centers

Initiative” on December 16th, 2009 in an effort to ensure financial support for these local centers

(Lexia).

       Unfortunately, this solution is not without its own set of problems. Consistent attendance

of the adult learners is a serious issue, as one study observed in its report in a 1996 issue of

Journal of Community Health Nursing: “[sporadic] attendance is not uncommon in adult learning

sites[…] New students often arrive daily, and many skip classes, and others quit coming

altogether. At least one third are absent on any given day, and many students arrive late for

morning classes.” (Murphy) “Attendance turbulence,” as it is sometimes called, most often

occurs simply because the adult learners have a life outside of their studies, which includes work,

family, illness, housing concerns, etc. (Strucker). Far from being a requirement, class at a

community learning center is merely an added benefit for these adults already out of public

schooling—if they have time.

       However, I believe that if adult illiteracy rates in America are to be lowered, attendance
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at these learning facilities should be required. As had been previously mentioned, many of the

illiterate are on some form of public welfare. In order to obtain aid from the federal government,

prospective recipients must spend at least 15 hours a week at a registered learning facility

learning basic literacy skills if they did not score above what would be considered Basic Level in

the NAAL study. The program would be implemented and funded by systems already in place,

overseen by the US Department of Education and supported through grants from the 21st Century

Learning Center Initiatives.

         In the current system, all an unemployed person must do is prove that they are applying

to jobs to receive aid: make photocopies of applications, resumes, etc.. With this solution, an

additional stipulation would be added to the aid. If the same individual was not literate and

offered proof of attendance at class in addition to continuing to apply for work, he or she would

be able to receive federal aid. In this way, attendance turbulence can be somewhat stabilized,

and adult learners would have an immediate motivation beyond academic enrichment to attend

class.

         Any learning facility applying for a 21st Century Learning Center Initiative grant would

be required to register with the program. In order to be accepted, learning facilities would be

required to be open on weekends, as well as weekdays, so that adult learners have the most

opportunity to attend class at their convenience. Preference would be given to those facilities

that hired more permanent staff, based on increased demand expectancies, and had networked

with local educational institutions like high schools or university for volunteer-student tutors.

Literacy evaluation exams, modeled on the NAAL‟s, would be offered for one week monthly at

the learning center, and every adult student would be required to take the exam to gauge

progress. Any student who didn‟t meet these requirements—application for jobs, attendance at a
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registered community learning center, and a monthly exam—would not be allowed to receive aid

for the week that the requirements were not fulfilled.

       This system may seem a bit extreme; after all, if public school didn‟t teach these people

before, how will another government-regulated educational system help? However, a similar

solution worked in Tennessee back in 1999. Individuals applying for the Tennessee welfare

program “Families First” who also failed to score high enough on the Tests of Adult Basic

Education, or TABE—similar to NAAL exam, only broader in scope—had to attend adult

education classes for 20 hours a week. Once they scored an 8.9, they had to begin their job

search if they wanted to continue getting aid. Researchers evaluating the new program said that

the adult education itself had improved with the increased funding from the state and by giving

the centers a “market”—consistent attendance—for their classes. (White) Instead of punishing

illiterate adults for their inability to escape poverty, Tennessee decided to teach its poorly

educated citizens so that they might be better able to support themselves without the state‟s help.

       This system would not be fool-proof. Individuals who wished to live at the government‟s

expense could purposely bomb their exams, continuing on the program as long as they did not

pass. However, the 15 hours required class time per week would prevent many from taking this

particular route. Increased attendance at centers would cause a strain on the learning centers‟

staffs, but by petitioning to the local schools both for teachers and students willing to donate

their time to teach others, this deficiency could be rectified with a minimum of expense. While

some communities would be too rural to support an actual classroom, websites could be set up so

that those who could not physically attend class could log in their hours. This method might be

more risky, as the chances of an illiterate individual finding a literate friend willing to take the

class would skyrocket, but as the illiterate individual would be required to take the exam in
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person, any cheaters would be quickly found out. Plus, teachers and tutors would have smaller

class sizes with which to work, and adult students would receive a greater amount of personal,

individualized attention than any they might have experienced in a public school setting.

       “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.”

The saying holds true to many subjects, but especially echoes with the issue of adult illiteracy.

America cannot afford to support its illiterate population indefinitely, and must therefore give its

citizens the skills required to support themselves in this highly literate society. By making

classes mandatory for those who wish to receive federal aid and are not literate, we are no longer

enabling our less fortunate citizens—we are enhancing their chances at success and enriching

their lives academically and fiscally.
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                                          Works Cited

Britt, Robert Roy. “14 Percent of US Adults Can‟t Read.” Jan 2009. LiveScience.

       LiveScience.com, Web. 13 Apr 2010. <http://www.livescience.com/culture/090110-

       illiterate-adults.html>.

Day, Jennifer Cheeseman and Eric C. Newburger. “The Big Payoff: Educational Attainment and

       Synthetic Estimates of Work-Life Earnings.” US Census Bureau: July 2002.

“Demographics.” National Assessment of Adult Literacy. National Center for Education

       Statistics, Web. 8 Apr 2010. <http://nces.ed. gov/naal/kf_demographics.asp>.

Kutner, Mark, et al. “A First Look at the Literacy of America‟s Adults in the 21st Century.”

       National Assessment of Adult Literacy. National Center for Education Statistics, Web. 10

       Apr 2010. <http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2006470>.

Levenson, Alec R., et al. “Welfare, Jobs and Basic Skills: The Employment Prospects of Welfare

       Recipients in the Most Populous U.S. Counties.” Apr 1999. NCSALL Report #10.

       National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy, Web. 15 Apr 2010.

       <http://www.ncsall.net/?id=661# white>.

“Lexia Reading and 21st Century Learning Centers.” 18 Jan 2010. Lexia Reading, Web. 9 Apr

       2010. < http://www.lexialearning.com/files/about/LexiaReading_21stCCLC_Data

       Sheet.pdf>.

Murphy, Peggy W., et al. “Teaching Nutrition Education in Adult Learning Centers: Linking

       Literacy, Health Care, and the Community.” Journal of Community Health Nursing. 13.3

       (1996): 149-58.
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ProLiteracy. “The Impact of Literacy: Basic Facts About Literacy.” 13 Oct 2008. ProLiteracy,

       Web. 13 Apr 2010. < http://www.proliteracy.org/NetCommunity/Page.aspx?pid=345&

       srcid=303>.

Stucker, John. “More Curriculum Structure: A Response to „Turbulence‟.” Focus on Basics. 8.C

       (2006).

“What is NAAL?.” National Assessment of Adult Literacy. National Center for Education

       Statistics, Web. 8 Apr 2010. < http://nces. ed.gov/naal/>.

White, Connie, et al. “Families First: Implications of Welfare Reform For Tennessee Adult Basic

       Education.” Apr 1999. NCSALL Report #10. National Center for the Study of Adult

       Learning and Literacy, Web. 15 Apr 2010. <http://www.ncsall.net/?id=661#white>.

United States. Cong. “Workforce Investment Act of 1998.” 105th Cong.. Washington: GPO,

       1998. 127.

								
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