The truly illiterate

Three percent of adults can’t read in English,  concludes a federal report from the National Center for Education Statistics.  Yet nearly 20 percent of the illiterate group had a high school diploma or GED; about half had been educated in the U.S.

For those for whom Spanish is a first language, a delay in learning English is associated with low basic reading skills. Those who learned English before age 11 had basic reading scores similar to average native English speakers (97 words read correctly per minute); however, for those who learned English after age 21, average scores were 35 points (or about one-third) lower.

It’s not clear delayed English mastery caused low reading skills or whether the factors that caused failure to learn reading also caused problems in learning English.

About Joanne


  1. It should be possible to obtain a high school diploma without learning English. Millions of people do it every year.

  2. Absent factors like handicaps, it should not be possible to remain in the USA without learning English.

  3. On the evidence, millions of people “obtain” a high school diploma without learning much of anything.

    As for 3% of being illiterate, I invite the scholars from the National Center for Education Statistics to drop by an adult literacy center some time. If it’s only 3% of adults they must all live pretty close to the literacy centers because the literacy centers seem to do quite a brisk business for such a vanishingly small minority.

  4. BadaBing says:

    Students where I teach can neither read, spell nor write in English or Spanish. The average reading level is 6th grade at best. They also have no interest in reading. To be fair, however, I must say that all our students are highly proficient in the use of iPods and cell phones.

  5. @Engineer-Poet: “it should not be possible to remain in the USA without learning English”
    Are you suggesting native-born Americans who have not learned to read should be forced to leave?

  6. That’s strange, since the CIA World Factbook says the US has a 99$ literacy rate.

  7. I am saying (not suggesting) that anyone who is not otherwise handicapped but fails to learn to speak English cannot be an American in anything but the most legalistic sense, by e.g. the erroneous interpretation of the 14th Amendment; learning English is a legal (though oft-ignored) requirement for naturalization.  Children who grow up without learning English should be reclassified and deported along with their parents; the only exceptions should be for Native American languages indigenous to the territory in which the child grows up.

    People who fail to learn to read but aren’t handicapped need strong reality checks.  If it takes punitive measures to get parents and children to take it seriously, so be it.

  8. Tracy W says:

    Engineer-Poet, I don’t think that adults who fall to learn to read need a strong reality check. Check out these stories, for example. Or others.

    I think what the adults who failed to learn to read need is being taught to read.

    I remember at primary school participating in whole-class singing, and the teacher suddenly stopped the class and scolded one of the boys for singing out of tune. I had no idea whether I was singing in tune or not, let alone how to sing in tune, but I got the distinct impression that singing out of tune was a very very bad thing. As an adult, I would have put my hand up and asked “Well how do we sing in tune?” but as a kid I didn’t have that self-confidence. So in the future I sung very very quietly. This had the immediate good result that I never got yelled at for singing out of tune, but probably didn’t fit in with the intentions of the teacher. Punitive methods can stop people from doing things, but they don’t strike me as great for teaching people how to do things. It seems silly to look to them as the first possibility.

  9. Cardinal Fang says:

    The writers of that literacy report are no doubt experts in adult literacy, but their writing and organization skills need help. The reader has to wade through pages of detailed statistics in order to find the point. It’s awful. In addition to improving reading skills for illiterate Americans, we also need to improve writing skills for Americans who write for a living.

    This report concerns the three percent of adult Americans who can’t read at all. Many have poor English skills; many have disabilities; probably many are unintelligent; many did not grow up in the US. While their plight is unfortunate, they are not the low-hanging fruit. We’d do better aiming our remediation efforts at the higher functioning group of poor readers, a larger group. If we improved reading instruction for all students, we’d have fewer poor readers, and we might even have fewer truly illiterate adults.

  10. Engineer-Poet:

    (1) People are allowed to stay in the US without being naturalized. That’s what – among other things – green cards are for. There is no English test to simply *be* in the country, nor should there be.

    (2) You may wish that the 14th amendment said something other than what it does, but it is very clear “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” If you are born in the US (and are not the child of foreign diplomats), you are a US citizen, period.

  11. @BadaBing: So let’s make literacy a prerequisite for getting a cell phone with voice capability. Otherwise they have to learn how to read and write text messages!

  12. Andy Freeman says:

    > It should be possible to obtain a high school diploma without learning English.

    Sure – why not. Heck – there’s no reason why we can’t give high school diplomas to anything with a pulse, including my cat.

    Of course, we’ll still need some way to identify people who can usefully participate in US society – it just won’t be a high school diploma.

  13. Bring back comprehensive vocational education. Not everyone can or should go to college. Those with lower literacy skills could still contribute to society (although in the skilled trades such as plumbing, mechanics, electical work, etc., one still needs to learn to read manuals. Many educrats–especially the bleeding heart leftist variety, which is most of them–have an elitist attitude about attending university. There is nothing inherently more valuable about being a lawyer, sociologist, doctor or engineer, rather than a plumber or custodian. Society needs the skills and talents of everyone. Read Diane Ravetch’s excellent commentaries on the sad state of high school education for those not on the college track. ‘Nuff said.

  14. Sorry…electrical is vastly better than ‘electical’ work…we’ll leave that to the politicians! (Pardon my typo)

  15. Inherent or not, different vocations can be valued in some rough order which unfortunately places the guy who picks up your trash ahead of the guy who teaches your children. And in this global economy a girl who helps manufacture your clothes commands much less value than a girl who is researching a cure for swine flu.