Beating the literacy odds

Last night, I was confronted by some disturbing statistics. In the city I live in, approximately 50% of adults have a functional literacy level of 2 or below.

To put this in perspective, this is around the reading level of those “I Can Read” books. The ones that focus on simple sentences and how letters can combine into slightly different sounds. The ones that have sentences like, “The ladder has steps. You can go up, and you can go down.”

And around half of the adults in this city have difficulty reading beyond that level. Have to sound out polysyllabic words. Probably would not be able to fully understand this post I’m writing, unless someone read it aloud to them.

It’s a very depressing — and sobering — thought.

I have a hard time imagining it, to be honest. If there are words, I have to read them. I’m one of those people who, from an early age, brought a book on every car trip. Even if it was only half an hour long. If I’m in a doctor’s waiting room and forgot to bring a book, I’m reading any stupid magazine they have, just to read something. My eyes are drawn to words and my brain is drawn to reading them. I can’t imagine it being any other way.

I knew this was unusual. I knew that most people didn’t like to read as much as I do, that they didn’t devour books with a voracious appetite like I can. (I’ve overheard people actually bragging that they haven’t read a book since high school. This is the kind of place I live in.) But I didn’t quite realise that some people can’t. That without help, they can’t read enough to do more than follow basic simple instructions.

In learning this, I couldn’t help but wonder why. Why is it that so many people can’t read beyond that level? How did it get that way? What part of society failed them so that they can’t achieve what some consider one of the most basic academic skills? Is it that they always had this trouble and schools forced them through the system anyway? Is it that they used to have a stronger ability to read but through years of just not bothering, the skill faded?

And what could be done to combat this trend? Do schools need to continue vocabulary and spelling tests beyond elementary school? Do we need more emphasis on reading aloud? More silent reading time? Or is this just an inevitable consequence of large class sizes and apathetic teachers?

Discovering this statistic really made me appreciate how lucky I am. I’ve talked at length with trusted friends about how there were multiple points in my life that could have made me look at reading as nothing but a bitter chore to be endured until I can go do something fun again. I got lucky. I discovered that reading was awesome, that when the rest of the world sucked there were fantastic worlds between the pages, just waiting for me to visit them again and again. I even watched TV shows about reading, (though I think I may be the only person in the world who remembers Bookmice).

For me to not only be able to read well but to also enjoy reading the way I do means that I beat the odds in a big way. I stood a 50/50 chance, statistically, of only being able to read simple instructions. Instead, I read fantasy and speculative fiction and all sorts of nonfiction.

I could myself even luckier, too, after finding out that further north in this province, that 50% jumps to around 70%. The vast majority of people in northern New Brunswick cannot read past a second grade level.

If you can read this, you likely beat the odds. The fact that you’re stopping by this blog at all probably means that not only can you read, but that you too actually enjoy doing so, and in that, you beat even larger odds. Take a moment to marvel at that.

What are literacy rates like where you live? As dismal as here? Or more encouraging?

2 comments on “Beating the literacy odds

  1. Where did you find the data for the level 2 cut off in your city. All I can find is something that gives me percent who don’t have “basic” literacy skills, but I don’t know what that means exactly and it’s way lower than your city so I figure it must be a different metric ;-) Excellent topic, it makes me want to go out and start teaching reading skills somewhere

    • I found the info via this website. It breaks it down into an interactive chart by region, and you can zoom in and get more info by city (and even sections of cities when you’re dealing with larger cities, which is kind of interesting). Granted, the info was last updated in 2006, but short of a huge reform, I can’t see those statistics having changed too much, especially since from what I can tell, it’s been this bad for a while.

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