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Functional Illiteracy: The Hidden Crisis Facing America

This post is featured on behalf of Jenna Brown.

Unless you’re a teacher or a parent of a young child you may not be aware that there is an almost invisible threat facing the future of this country.

It’s a growing epidemic called functional illiteracy, and there appear to be no signs of it slowing down. It’s much worse than you might think. It is estimated that 32 million American adults are functionally illiterate. This means 1 out of 7 Americans!

Fortunately, initiatives like the School Readiness Program Los Angeles that uses the Little by Little program are helping to increase the chance of children from low-income families acquiring literacy and academic success.

Before getting into the details of how the Little by Little program works, let’s take a closer look at functional illiteracy to appreciate the immense value of such literacy-enhancing programs.

Understanding Functional Illiteracy

What is functional illiteracy? It’s an inadequate level of reading and writing skills to manage the business of daily life. Someone with functional illiteracy struggles with simple tasks that require reading or writing skills. In cases where they come from a low-income household, they can only hope to get the lowest paying jobs that don’t require the ability to read or write. 

While illiteracy means that someone has not had an education, functional illiteracy means that they have been to school — and may even have spent 12 years in a public school — but can only read easy things and write in simple sentences.

In a world that is becoming increasingly knowledge-based, it’s important that more people go to graduate school to be able to make a bigger contribution to society.

If it’s an epidemic, why isn’t it better known?

Here are a few hypotheses by educators trying to raise awareness about functional illiteracy:

1. It has been relabeled as dyslexia by psychologists. Samuel L. Blumenfeld outlines his argument for this point-of-view in his research paper, Dyslexia: The Disease You Get in School. He begins his discussing with the assertion: “The difference between a dyslexic and a functional illiterate is purely social. Dyslexics are usually adolescents from middle-class or professional families whose parents assume that their child’s reading difficulty is more of a medical or psychological problem than an educational one.”

2. Many people who have it, but come from middle-class or wealthy families find clever ways to cover it up. Many of the biggest stars in Hollywood, sports figures, and successful business people have found ways to get around it. Some common tactics include pretending to read by staring at a book or newspaper, using audio books, getting a personal assistant to explain things to them, or hiring ghostwriters to pen their articles and books.

3. Poor children who attend public schools drop out before high school graduation because of the emotional pain of being functionally illiterate. Consequently, they are misperceived as not having received sufficient education rather than functionally illiterate.

What is the reason for it?

Functional illiteracy is not due to lack of intelligence, because many people with it have managed to find a way to work around it and still achieve modest to high levels of success in life.

One possibility is that it is due to the influence of the socialist educator John Dewey, who in 1898 persuaded the school system to replace the phonics method with whole word method. The problem with this switch was that the phonics method worked well while the whole word method was a comparatively ineffective way of learning to read.

The Little by Little Method

The Little by Little program focuses on preparing preschool children for school. It’s a form of early literacy and learning for children from poorer families. It’s not designed to replace preschool programs, but to foster literacy in the homes of low-income families who can’t afford to access school readiness programs.

It does this by providing children before the age of five with age-appropriate high-quality reading materials, offering guidance on when a child is reaching child-development milestones, and encourages parental engagement as part of fostering early literacy in children.

In essence, then, by preparing children for school, the children have a much higher chance of achieving academic success than they would if they did not receive early intervention.

In closing, functional illiteracy is something that anyone can overcome at any age with remedial reading classes. These fill in developmental reading skills that were skipped and expand vocabulary to make it possible to follow the meaning of written words.