“Duuh” — With Literacy Rates Slipping, Is America Dumbing Down?

By Marcelina Santiago • May 5th, 2008 • Category: Public Affairs

Americans are losing their ability to read so dramatically that about a quarter of adult citizens can’t fill out a job application, and significant fractions would be challenged comprehending the instructions on a medical bottle, according to a variety of recent reports.

            It’s not just a personal problem. Semi-literate Americans are less likely to become active members in their community, vote and hold high paying jobs.

            Out of about 191 million adults in the U.S., about a quarter cannot read a newspaper and a little more than a quarter cannot read above the eighth-grade level, according to a report released by the National Institute for Literacy (NIL).

            Other activities seem to be pushing reading to the side.


“Children today are experiencing their early years being blitzed with TV, videos, hand-held digital games, computers and other mechanical devices that remove socialization, stamina, attention span and proactive learning,” said Judy Birnbaum, an elementary school literacy teacher who works with low-level readers in Jamaica, Queens.

“An appreciation of the written word is becoming lost in a time when connecting to computers has replaced human contact and the human voice,” she said.

            Americans aged 15 to 24 spent just seven minutes on voluntary reading on weekdays and just 10 minutes on Saturdays and Sundays, according to To Read or Not to Read a study of literacy from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

            Being in college doesn’t mean you’re an avid reader.

            “Besides what I have to read for school I don’t read a lot,” said Stephanie Moore, a 21-year-old Hunter College student. “Sometimes I’ll pick up the newspaper, if I have the time, but I don’t really read books.” The last book Moore read was the inspirational Chicken Soup for the Teenager’s Soul three years ago.

            From 1992 to 2005 the number of college graduates who could adequately understand a piece of prose fell by 23 percent, while the reading skill of those who have a master’s or doctorate degree fell from 51 percent in 1992 to 41 percent in 2003, according to the NEA report.

            “I consider myself an adequate reader,” said Keyri Chicas, a Psychology major at Stony Brook University, who read the entire Harry Potter series over the recent summer vacation. “I understand most of what I read for my classes, the problem is that my brain just wanders elsewhere.”


Electronics take time away from reading!
Electronics take time away from reading!
  Luring Americans away from the printed page are television, computers, and video games. Those aged 15 to 24, who found only seven minutes to read on weekdays, found two to two and a half hours to watch television daily.

            “Our culture is very digital,” said Karen Hunter, a distinguished lecturer in the Hunter College Department of Film and Media Studies and owner of Karen Hunter Publishing. “From the many, many, many websites to the Xboxes and Playstations to the Treos and Iphones, we are hooked on gadgets and pointing and clicking and navigating.”

            The NIL study found that the Southern states have the highest rates of adult illiteracy. Mississippi ranked lowest with every third adult, at best able to write his or her name or locate the expiration date on a driver’s license.

            Louisiana has the second highest illiteracy rate followed by Alabama, Florida, and South Carolina tying for third place. Combining the percentage of the adult populations in those Southern states that either cannot read with those who have at least an eighth grade reading level, nearly 70 percent of the adult population is illiterate or near illiterate, according to the NIL study.

            Those results are not just alarming; they’re having an effect on our country socially and economically, literacy experts say. About 72 percent of employers list the inability to write adequately as the biggest deficiency in new hires who have graduated from high school, while 63 percent say that the biggest deficiency is the inability to read adequately. These employers spend an estimated $3.1 billion for remedial training, according to the NIL report.

            Good reading isn’t only about books. Good readers tend to volunteer more, they go to art museums more, and they even exercise and play sports more. They also make more money, according to the NEA report. In 2003, 58 percent of readers who met the proficiency level earned at least $850 a week while only 13 percent of readers who read below the proficiency level, earned that much. Out of people with the lowest literacy skills, 43 percent live below the poverty line and 70 percent hold only a part-time job or no job at all.

Illiteracy is even connected to health. In 1995, a high number of hospital patients could not follow basic medical instructions, according to a study conducted by The Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA). The study of patient literacy was conducted in two urban hospitals, where 75 percent of patients could not understand a consent form, which raises questions about the ability of these people to participate in their own health care.

Literacy might be down but thanks to new technology it may just be taking a new path in the 21st Century. Publishers are trying to reinvent themselves to please computer dependent consumers with new gadgets like Kindle, a wireless e-book reader made by Amazon.com and Sony’s e-reader and it may be working.

“ The Kindle is sold out and they made more than a million [of the devices.]” Hunter said, adding that the Sony e-reader is on backorder with more than a million sold. “So, that’s more than two million-plus people with these devices. Is there a market? I think so.”

In another upbeat note, television viewing cans were reading, writing, and reflection.

            On websites like Fanfiction.net, Tiffany Green, a Hunter College Theater Major, loves her television shows so much that she is constantly reading about them on the web.

“I’m obsessed with television like everyone else,” she said. “I love to read fan fiction about my favorite shows. The stories other people can tell are so fascinating. They make me see my favorite characters in a new light.” Greene does not read many books and the last novel she read in its entirety was the dark comedy, The Night of the Avenging Blowfish, almost a year ago.

            The authors of the stories on Fanfiction.net and other fan fiction websites are not professional writers and often make egregious punctuation, spelling and grammar errors. Steps to foster better writing skills, however, are being taken with new features like Beta Readers on fanficition.net. Beta Readers are essentially a group of editors who read fan-written stories and help authors correct their mistakes.

It's important for children to start reading at an early age, according to Judy Birnbaum
It's important for children to start reading at an early age, according to Judy Birnbaum

While book sales are down and literacy is at its biggest low yet, many people still read for pleasure. Busy college students, at least those at Hunter College, still find time to read in their spare time. A few, like Mansi Desai, manage to read at least two books a month.

            “I don’t read my textbooks,” she laughed as she folded up a newspaper, one of the many things she likes to read. The last book Desai read in its entirety was The Inheritance of Laws.

            Professionals, like Karen Hunter who teaches two days a week, runs a publishing house, and is in the process of writing another book of her own also finds time to read.

             “I read for pleasure all of the time—which is why I’m smarter than the average bear,” Hunter joked. “I read about four books a month. I just finished the Golden Compass trilogy and am reading The Black Rose, a novelization of the life of Madame CJ Walker.”

            According to Hunter, publishers are also failing to do their jobs well.


“I believe that literacy is changing. We are in an era where people aren’t reading as much but I also believe that the product, the books have been dramatically dumbed down and there are low standards,” said Hunter.

“But when you get a Harry Potter or a book that is 1000 pages and has a compelling story, we thirst for that.”

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Marcelina Santiago is a 21-year-old Hunter College student from Bayside, Queens. She is currently double majoring in Media Studies and Creative Writing as well as interning for Karen Hunter at Karen Hunter Publishing. She is an avid reader and a Salsa/Mambo dancer. One day she hopes to write for a major New York City newspaper.
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