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Sad State of Adult Literacy

Updated on December 26, 2016
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Rebecca Graf is a seasoned writer with nearly a decade of experience and degrees in accounting, history, and creative writing.

Sadly a large number of adults cannot read. It is not just a handful. There are large number who cannot read the basic of words, and the numbers might only get worse.

How Bad?

How bad is it really? Worse than you probably realize. Put all the adults in the country in one pool. Take about a third of them and set them aside. They cannot read higher than the basic requirements for eighth grade. Over half of them cannot read at a fifth-grade level. In other words, they have not fully entered into the adult world. It’s very sad.

These ‘adults’ cannot read and understand the disclaimers on products and services. That puts them in danger and at risk. What does that tell us? Our country is in trouble.

Dangers of Illiteracy in Adulthood

So what if most adults can’t read and comprehend basic English? Is that really that big of a deal? It’s a very big deal. In fact, it is very dangerous. We could all be at risk. Seriously! I’m not lying. If someone can’t read well, who’s to say that they will push the right button or take the right turn? It really is that serious.


Also, the adults of today help mold the adults of tomorrow. If they can’t read, how will the younger generation fare? It can only get worse from there. The next generations will only read less than they do. It’s a downward spiral.

Signs of Adult Illiteracy

How do you know if an adult struggles with reading? They won’t wear a sign telling you. But if you are observant you can pinpoint who is illiterate.

Avoid Reading Out Loud - If someone can’t read well, they will avoid drawing that attention to themselves. No volunteering to read for a group. No pointing out what signs read. They will not get involved in reading anything if they can help it.

Always Give Reason for Someone to Read for Them - Going along in life like everyone else, they will give all sorts of reasons for someone else to read for them. They might not have their glasses. They have to go to the bathroom. They need to take that call.

Avoidance of Common Technology - Texting has become a big method of communication as well as emails. Someone who is illiterate might avoid these tools or find creative ways to use them and still not reveal their weakness.

What Can We do About It?

This is a very big question. One that has been asked for decades. There is no simple answer that will solve it completely. It will take many different tactics at various levels.

Step One - Educate the youth.

I have to say that many of those leaving high school have the education of a second grader. I was editing the work of someone who wanted to get their book published. They were in their mid-thirties. Bragged about their education….They didn’t know that dialogue was what the characters said in a book. They said it was the same as narrative.

In a forum with other writers, I used the word ‘plethora’. This is not a ‘big’ word to me. I use it all the time and see it used by others. I was told how arrogant I was for using such big words in the group. It’s a shame that others mock people who actually have a vocabulary and use it.

Our young people need to be exposed to a wider range of vocabulary and encouraged to read. If there are reading problems, they need to be addressed early and done so without embarrassment for the young child which leads to the next step.

Step Two - Encourage Adults

Helping young children who are struggling to read is one thing. Helping adults is an entirely different issue. They have faced their issues for too long and have also hidden them away just as long. They aren’t about to let go. You need to be even more encouraging to adults.

A child not able to read as well is almost expected. An adult is not. Society assumes every adult can read which is not the reality. That is why they need to know that there is no reason to be ashamed. Encourage them to face their issues and take them by the horns. Don’t be shocked at their inability to read well. Don’t be discouraging. Show them that you will help and that you are proud of them.

As long as there are literacy problems, those problems will continue to grow if we do not make a concentrated effort to combat it. If we can catch the problems in the early years, we’ll be able to have future generations with fewer adult literacy problems.

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