Story & Photo by Yesenia Gonzalez
Imagine ordering food at a restaurant and not being able to read the menu. According to proliteracy.org, an adult literacy and education membership organization, nearly 800 million adults around the world struggle with basic reading, writing and math skills. That number is about 36 million in the United States, which represents more than 1-in-10 people.
According to Riz White, executive director of Community Literacy Centers of Oklahoma City, one in five adults are considered functionally illiterate in Oklahoma.
“Typically, people living at or below the poverty level are more at risk for lower reading abilities,” White said. “43 percent of adults with low literacy levels live in poverty. There have been studies that indicate the single greatest indicator of children’s success is the literacy level of their parents. 72 percent of children of illiterate parents also become illiterate.”
White stated that in 2015, 67 percent of Oklahoma’s fourth graders scored below a proficient reading level, and 77 percent of students who qualified for free or reduced-price lunches did not read at a proficient level.
Reading and education opens doors to a better life. According to the American Journal of Public Health, adults have difficulties understanding and using health information, which results in a loss of $230 billion in health care benefits. The Department of Defense funded centrist think tank Rand Corporation report, Evaluating the Effectiveness of Correctional Education, reports educated inmates are 43 percent less likely to return to prison. Literacy is a valuable skill with profound societal implications.
There are various factors that contribute to the United State’s adult illiteracy rate. Leslie Gelders is the Literacy Administrator for Oklahoma’s Department of Libraries Literacy Resource Office. Gelders has more than 30 years of experience in various local and national literacy projects and programs, including serving as the president of the Oklahoma Literacy Coalition for three terms.
“The most frequent causes of illiteracy in adults [are] parents with little schooling or who are non-readers themselves, illness or moving frequently causing poor school attendance, hearing or vision impairment, no books in the home and little value on [the] importance [of] education, doing badly or dropping out of school-many have not completed high school, difficult living conditions, including poverty, [and] learning disabilities, such as dyslexia,” she said.
Illiteracy is a multifaceted issue with no single cause. Both controllable and uncontrollable life circumstances can contribute to an individual’s struggle. According to Gelders, embarrassment from public stigma, a lack of support systems, scheduling conflicts, low finances to pay for services, lack of time due to other responsibilities and older age can all hinder a person from seeking help.
Historically, literacy rates began to increase when books became more affordable. Johannes Gutenberg was a German aristocrat from the early 15th century who is credited with mechanizing the printing press in the Western world, which made books more accessible to common people. Asian nations like China and Korea had their own printing systems made up of carved wooden blocks thousands of years prior to Gutenberg’s mechanized printing press. Due to their language structure, which includes thousands of individual characters, handwriting was a more practical option than a printing press.
When Gutenberg began printing on his press, it was the catalyst for the religious and cultural revolution thereafter. More people could read the Bible and no longer needed a priest to explain it, which led to the formation of Protestant groups who believed they could interpret the Bible themselves. Information could be transmitted like never before, which helped spark scientific thinking and the spread of new ideas. Indeed, the literacy rate in Europe rose after the creation of the mechanical printing press, although the rate slowly crept up because people living in urban areas had better access to printed materials than people in rural areas.
Undoubtedly, books play an important role in literacy. In recent years, technology and, subsequently, internet use has expanded. According to Victoria Stephens from the Metropolitan Library System’s marketing department, Oklahoma’s most visited libraries are the Edmond, Downtown Oklahoma City and Northwest locations. Libraries still offer services that could not otherwise be obtained by a simple internet search.
“Libraries provide a variety of services and resources that you cannot get from the internet,” Stephens said. “eResources available through the library give users access to vetted and verified information that cannot be accessed with a search through an internet search engine which just scratches the surface. The library also offers the services of skilled librarians who are trained in how to utilize valuable research methods and trained on the variety of resources the library subscribes to in order to help customers find the information they need.”
Various programs exist to assist adult learners, including Rose State’s own reading program. Chris Knox is Rose State’s full-time reading coordinator. Knox said the reading program serves a wide age group; people from ages 18 to 72 have received assistance. The program includes online instruction with various learning tools, textbook instruction and assistance from various professors and staff.
“Reading is an essential foundation for success in school and in the workplace,” Knox said. “Lifelong education empowers people to ultimately improve socioeconomic conditions for their families, communities, countries and future generations. Literacy opens doors of opportunity and understanding that no other skill can provide. The ability to read, write and understand stimulates communication that impacts every life. My vision for every student I teach is that upon graduation, he or she will be a leader who positively affects our community as a role model. I see each student standing in the future, feeling dignity, pride and the respect of others.”
Being able to read well can enhance people’s quality of life. Voting, obtaining a higher education and understanding health care information are all difficult tasks if a person does not understand how to read. Education is the foundation of opportunity and well-being.
“Functionally illiterate adults should not be synonymous with ignorance – many of them are extremely smart,” White said. “For whatever reason, they may not have been given the tools they needed to learn properly and fell through the cracks in school. Perhaps they had multiple substitute teachers, moved several times and had to change schools, had a learning disability that was not diagnosed, or dropped out of school due to a family crisis. Many factors can contribute to functional illiteracy, but do not necessarily determine the aptitude of a person.”
A common trend throughout human history is that people from lower income levels tend to be less educated. Similar patterns exist today. However, a quality education can positively affect a person for the rest of their life.
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