Literacy, Every Day

The following article was submitted by literacy volunteers Josiah H. Brown and Susan Monroe to coincide with International Literacy Day, which is Thursday.

In discussions of education, the economy, and civic engagement in the United States, rarely acknowledged are the many adults who are functionally illiterate.

Sept. 8 is International Literacy Day.  It’s appropriate as a new school year begins—even though much reading, like much learning generally, happens outside of school.  UNESCO reports, “In 2008 … the global adult literacy rate was 83%, with a male literacy rate of 88% and a female literacy rate of 79%.”  The lowest literacy rates were in sub-Saharan Africa, with under half of the adult population literate in ten countries, while “gender disparity was greatest in Southern Asia, where 73% of all men but only 51% of women had the ability to read and write.” (1)

In the U.S., the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL, 2003) distinguishes among three types of literacy: prose, document, and quantitative literacy.

According to sources including the NAAL, 2 in 5 adults in Greater New Haven have only basic or below basic prose literacy skills.  This is consistent with Connecticut at large, with 1 in 10 statewide below the basic level.  In New Haven proper (and other cities), the situation is more severe: about 3 in 5 adults have basic or below basic prose literacy skills.

Those with limited literacy struggle to decipher street signs, to read directions on a medicine bottle or the headline news here. Imagine when these adults are confronted with a job application, a political pamphlet, or a note from their child’s teacher.  Assisting that child with homework, or even reading to a pre-school-age child, may be difficult.

The repercussions of low literacy are extensive. According to, “American business currently spends more than $60 billion each year on employee training, much of that for remedial reading, writing, and mathematics; annual health care costs in the U.S. are four times higher for individuals with low literacy skills than … for individuals with high level literacy skills.”

Effects on democracy and justice are incalculable.  John Adams reflected, “How can any man judge, unless his mind has been opened and enlarged by reading”?—a question that endures for men and women.

The 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found 1/3 of U.S. 4th-graders reading “below basic” levels, including 1/4 in Connecticut. (2)  Only 1/3 of 4th-graders nationally read proficiently or better, including 42 percent of Connecticut 4th-graders. (The NAEP standard of “proficiency” resembles the Connecticut “goal,” more exacting than what the state expects for “proficient” and federal “adequate yearly progress.”) 

While our state surpasses the national average and has many accomplished teachers and schools, Connecticut – despite its greater wealth – trails Massachusetts substantially.  Achievement gaps on average by ethnicity are among the highest in the country (the same goes for achievement gaps on average by income, on the Connecticut Mastery Test for grades 3-8). This pattern holds for the NAEP 8th-grade test, which shows about 1/4 of U.S. students and 1/5 of those in Connecticut with below basic reading ability. (3) 

Statewide in 2011, fewer than half of the 10th-graders taking the Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT) read at the goal level or above (though more than 80 percent were at the state’s proficient level or above); 18 percent read at a basic or below level. (4)

The percentage of high-school dropouts has declined over decades, but the problem persists in many communities. (5)  A 2011 Casey Foundation report found “One in six children who are not reading proficiently in third grade do not graduate from high school on time, a rate four times greater than that for proficient readers. The rates are highest for the low, below-basic readers: 23 percent of these children drop out or fail to finish high school on time.” (6)

Adults with below basic prose literacy skills make up 1 in 7 overall in the U.S. and more than half of those without a high school diploma or GED (NAAL, 2003).  Dropping out is highly correlated with unemployment and crime.  The unemployment rate for those who don’t finish high school is about twice the overall rate, and their (already low) real wages have declined. (7)  One-half of adults in federal and state correctional institutions cannot read or write, and 85% of juvenile offenders have reading problems (ProLiteracy).

Even among high-school graduates, reading (and math) skills are often sub-par, with remedial courses necessary for half of community college students—adding years and dollars to the investments needed to earn a degree and prepare for a job.  As technological change and global competition accelerate, the Campaign for a Working Connecticut laments that 40 percent of adults in our state “lack adequate literacy skills to function effectively in the workplace.”

Nearing the end of what the UN declared a “literacy decade” from 2003 through 2012, many challenges remain—locally and nationally, not to mention globally. Why are millions of adults in this country living without basic skills?  The answers include a troubling school dropout rate, uneven instruction and student motivation, learning disabilities, and adults with low literacy in a native language other than English.  Socio-economic inequality plays a major role, with access to affordable, high-quality early childhood experiences often a barrier—increasing the chance that a generational cycle of low literacy will continue.  The status quo is unacceptable in a nation where social mobility and equality of opportunity are professed ideals, where children should not merely inherit and perpetuate unfortunate circumstances of their families. 

A sustained literacy movement, across all levels of government and the civic sector, is needed.  Pursuing a right to literacy is one approach.  Volunteers and donors are no substitute for professional teachers and supportive, involved families.  Still, everyone can help. 

An avenue to awareness and action is the regional online hub , with links to numerous resources.  Volunteer as a tutor or mentor, scan services (from tutoring, including in ESL and computing, to free books), or donate to strengthen these valuable services.  If there is a related event or offering you would like us to post on our calendar, please let us know.

Recently New Haven lost two literacy leaders, Christine Alexander and James Welbourne.  They helped create the Literacy Coalition of Greater New Haven, of which Chris Alexander was the founding board chair.  The Coalition and Literacy Resource Center bring together Concepts for Adaptive Learning, the Economic Development Corporation, Jewish Coalition for Literacy, Junta for Progressive Action, Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven, New Haven Public Library, New Haven Reads, Read to Grow, Science Park, the Workforce Alliance, adult and early education providers, universities, and others working to support schools, teachers, parents, libraries and learners of all ages and backgrounds. (8)

Literacy is about more than a day, or even a decade.  Literacy affects nearly everyone, every day.

Josiah H. Brown and Susan Monroe are board members of the all-volunteer Literacy Coalition of Greater New Haven, part of the Literacy Resource Center at 4 Science Park, New Haven, CT 06511.  Contact them there or at info @ .


(1) UNESCO fact sheet on Adult and Youth Literacy: Global Trends in Gender Parity accessed on September 4, 2011.

(2) NAEP grade 4 results accessed on September 4, 2011.

(3) NAEP grade 8 results accessed on September 4, 2011.

(4) See

(5) Percentage of high school dropouts among persons 16 through 24 years old (status dropout rate), by sex and race/ethnicity: Selected years, 1960 through 2009 accessed on September 4, 2011.

(6) Annie E. Casey Foundation report, Double Jeopardy: How Third Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation accessed on September 4, 2011.

(7) U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data from 2010, “Education pays in higher earnings and lower unemployment rates” accessed on September 4, 2011.

(8) See earlier articles such as the following: .

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