When I first arrived at Fordham during the Covid-19 pandemic, I knew that I wanted to become involved with a volunteer or service program. After learning about several opportunities from the many clubs and activity groups on campus, the StriveHigher reading program for New York City youth caught my attention. The program’s goal is to improve the reading skills of children who are behind their grade’s reading level. Although the program was virtual, I was happy to connect with people who live in the city where I go to college. Every week, once a day for twenty minutes, I read to my assigned “reading buddy” to help improve his reading skills. At first, I wondered if reading to my “buddy” for such a short time made a difference. Over time, I realized how important it was for him. Each week, he was so happy to read a new book, and every time he read on his own, I could see how much he improved. He no longer hesitated with words that he could not pronounce, and he challenged himself with a new book every week. When I read more about why such a program exists, I learned how many students in the Bronx struggle with reading and how it detrimentally affects them later in life. Upon hearing this, I decided to do more research about illiteracy in the United States. What I learned was shocking. Childhood illiteracy in our country is an urgent issue, especially for families in poverty, and when students are unable to read proficiently, they will struggle later in their adult and working lives. Combating this issue requires active assistance from the government and education systems.
In a developed country such as the United States, some people may assume that everyone has access to a decent education or, at the very least, books. For many families, however, this is not the case. A surprising 25% of children in America do not grow up learning how to read, and 65% of children in the fourth grade cannot read proficiently (“30 Key Literacy Stats”). Why are these statistics so high? In the United States, the high illiteracy rate is attributed to other problems, particularly poverty. Depending on the state or city, attending a failing school can contribute to illiteracy, because most schools that serve low-income populations do not have age-appropriate books for their students (“30 Key Literacy Stats”). As a result, students cannot practice reading in or outside of school. Many families who live in the poverty-stricken areas, particularly in American cities, also lack the resources to provide their children with a stable education. Khali Sweeney, director of a literacy program in Detroit, has spoken firsthand about the issues he faced growing up and difficulties from learning how to read:
I’ve been shot. I’ve been in the gang. . . . All of my friends are either dead or in jail. If you have an education, you have hope. As long as you have hope, then . . . you’ll have something to live for. Because when I didn’t have hope, myself personally, when every day I was told I’d be dead or in jail before I was twenty-one, I’d say I’d got nothing to lose.“Tackling America’s illiteracy problem” 3:38-4:04.
This situation shows that in such dire situations, children must receive the education they deserve, especially if they live in impoverished areas such as Detroit, which is one of the poorest cities in the U.S. However, the problem stretches beyond the school systems. Reading at home helps children reinforce the material they learned in school. Many of these books are bought or borrowed through the Internet, a convenience of modern-day technology. Since many families struggle in poverty, they cannot afford to purchase books to read at home or do not have access to technology, hindering the learning process. Low-income families often do not have books in their homes (“30 Key Literacy Stats”), and parents of these families may unintentionally neglect their children’s education due to financial stress (“Child Illiteracy in America”). The situation is worse if the parents did not receive a high school diploma, and they often cannot properly teach their children at home (“Child Illiteracy in America”). This situation is serious because children must learn how to read early in their lives if they do not want to fall behind in school.
The effects of illiteracy on children are dire and reflected in their performances at school. Children who lack the essential skills required for their school year, which often involves reading at their grade level, are more likely to drop out. They must prepare themselves for the academic challenges as they continue to go through school, but the lack of basic reading skills hinders progress. In America, over a million teenagers drop out of high school every year (“Child Illiteracy in America”). As a result, those students are much less likely to attend college, but whether or not a student will attend college can be traced back to as early as their first years in elementary school. Most students who do not attend school from as early as kindergarten have a significantly lower chance of attending college (“Child Illiteracy in America”). For children, starting early is the most optimal goal for success.
The effects of childhood illiteracy, however, go far beyond school. To this day, there are millions of illiterate adults in the United States. Adults who are not educated either at home or in school during their childhood are more likely to continue struggling with reading. Despite touting America as having some of the best schools in the world, a surprising 50% of adults cannot read a book written for eighth-graders (“30 Key Literacy Stats”). Tying this issue back to poverty, about 75% of people on welfare are illiterate, and adults are more likely to stay in poverty if they are illiterate. Since illiterate adults cannot always understand or fill out job applications, they have limited options for work. In the state of Kentucky, an illiterate man named Michael Johnson explains how illiteracy affects him with his work. He describes a specific experience where he needed to pick up a box, but he was unable to understand what was on the box: “I would know that there [were] letters on the box, but I wouldn’t know how to read the letters on the box” (“The Americans who can’t read” 1:00-28). In the United States, adults must suffer the consequences of the lack of education in their childhood, without accountability from the government, families, or education systems.
Given the circumstances, how can such a problem be fixed? Although there are many philanthropic organizations such as the StriveHigher reading program, families should not have to rely solely on such limited organizations for help. These programs improve the children’s education, but there needs to be active work from city and state governments to ensure that every school is provided with the resources to help children learn at their grade level. Occasionally, there are discussions about the state of the schools in the United States, but they are brushed aside by the courts and governments. In Detroit, Michigan, a city with many failing public schools, students and parents brought forth a lawsuit against the governor of the state. In the lawsuit, students demanded the right to an education that teaches them how to read and write. In response, the state of Michigan wrote that the contents of the lawsuit ignored other issues that contributed to illiteracy, such as “poverty, intellectual limitations, domestic violence, trauma, and numerous influences” (“Tackling America’s illiteracy problem” 17:23-39). While these are all causes of illiteracy among students, they are not excuses for not giving students the opportunity, as the lawyer involved with the lawsuit stated (“Tackling America’s illiteracy problem” 17:40-48). In schools, there must be a curriculum on either a state or local level that ensures every student reads at the same level and learns grammar relevant to their school year. They should receive similar textbooks that teach the same concepts. This idea allows students to remain on the same page with what they are learning while simultaneously giving schools specific freedoms with books or novels they may teach in a literature class. For there to be active change, the state and local governments need to hold themselves responsible for teaching basic literacy skills to their students.
Although learning in school is essential for a student’s success, there needs to be more progress at home as well. If parents cannot afford books for their homes, the libraries or government must provide access to books for families who are not financially stable. If a parent or guardian does not have the time to read with their children, a tutor should be assigned to the family for at least a few months to make sure the student is not falling behind. This way, students can receive help with homework and ask questions about what they do not understand in class. These solutions will not succeed unless the government and officials monitor the situations in schools. If they choose to ignore the problems, they will have only a temporary effect on the issue at hand. If a school does not have the resources or money to teach children how to read, the government should provide the school money or other forms of aid. While complete government control is unnecessary, occasionally following up on the education system is critical in making sure that these changes stay in practice, not just on paper.
As millions of adults and children suffer from the long-lasting consequences of illiteracy, government assistance and accountability are crucial for progress and improvement. In my experience as a tutor, I realize how lucky I have been to receive an adequate education from elementary school to college. However, learning how to read should not be a privilege; it must be a right that every student in the United States is entitled to. It is only when the governments takes responsibility to protect the rights of these students that every child will have the chance for a proper education. In a country that was founded on basic human rights and the opportunity to succeed, there is no excuse for not giving children the chance to have a brighter future for themselves and their families.
“30 Key Child Literacy Stats Parents Need To Be Aware Of.” Literacy Project Foundation, The Literacy Project, http://www.literacyprojectfoundation.org/30-key-child-literacy-stats-parents-need-to-be-aware-of/.
“Child Illiteracy in America: Statistics, Facts, and Resources.” Regis College, http://online.regiscollege.edu/blog/child-illiteracy/.
“Tackling America’s illiteracy problem.” YouTube, uploaded by Unreported World, 20 Sep. 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aTOe9CDNHGs.
“The Americans who can’t read.” YouTube, uploaded by BBC News, 31 Oct. 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9UdvAg9SA14&t=84s.