The price of literacy

Published: Sunday, January 22, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 22, 2006 at 1:13 a.m.
Encourage our young people to spend more time reading for pleasure to help them comprehend articles and documents.
Being able to read and comprehend written material can be measured in dollars: The best readers can earn as much as $28,000 a year more than those who have trouble with the written language.
That finding from the recent National Assessment of Adult Literacy might encourage young people to spend more time reading for pleasure, something that needs to be encouraged, given the nation's poor showing in a massive survey designed to measure the ability to understand articles, documents, charts and graphs.
The recently published results were based on a 2003 survey of more than 19,000 Americans over the age of 16. An earlier federal study on the same subject was in 1992.
The trend over the past decade was not encouraging. Compared to the 1992 study, adult reading skills were either the same or lower across the board, regardless of the level of education.
Prose literacy - the ability to comprehend articles and stories - decreased among adults at every level of education. "This decrease calls out for more research," said Mark Schneider, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics that conducted the study.
Schneider added that the disturbing aspect of the findings was that it affects a person's everyday life: "What's disturbing is that the assessment is not designed to test your understanding of Proust, but to test your ability to read labels."
He told The Washington Post that "the biggest surprise" was "the declining impact of education on our adult population . . . and we just don't have a good explanation." It might be that schools and colleges "have not yet figured out how to teach a whole generation of students who learned to read on the computer and who watch more TV. It's a different kind of literacy."
Michael Gorman, president of the American Library Association, told The Post that the results were "appalling - it's really astounding. Only 31 percent of college graduates can read a complex book and extrapolate from it. That's not saying much for the remainder."
Officials in Washington acknowledged much more needs to be done.
"One adult unable to read is one too many in America," said U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. She said in the coming year, the administration will coordinate adult-education efforts to take "a comprehensive and preventive approach, beginning with elementary schools and with special emphasis in our high schools. We must focus resources toward proven, research-based methods to ensure that all adults have the necessary literacy skills to be successful."
The new report comes as nothing surprising to those who follow literacy issues. In 1994 and 1998, the Educational Testing Service measured literacy skills of U.S. adults against those from 19 other industrialized nations. The service gave the U.S. a "mediocre" rating. In similar testing by the International Literacy Survey, American adults scored no higher than 12th on three of four key measures.
Sadly, only 15 percent of those surveyed rated "proficient" in their ability to compute and compare "the cost per ounce of food items" or to compare "viewpoints in two editorials" on the same subject that had different conclusions.
Assuming that percentage is representative, of the 535 representatives and senators in Washington, perhaps 80 of them are proficient enough to convince the remaining 435 that literacy needs much more attention.

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