Although the National Center for Education Statistics reported in 2003 that 43 percent of American adults are virtually illiterate, nobody seems to have noticed. I retrieved this information from the NCES’s website, not from the media, which ignores this problem. Otherwise I wouldn’t have known exactly how serious our illiteracy problem still is.
Indeed, I had been studying the problem since 1973 when I wrote The New Illiterates. But in the interim 39 years, the continued growth of American illiteracy has become a “factoid” that has no resonance anywhere, not among the cognitive elite (liberal or conservative), not among the political parties, not among the legislators who vote to spend billions more on education, and not among parents who send their children to schools that turn them into illiterates.
Back in the 1980s, when a group of American university students were invited to lecture in Moscow, a Russian student in the audience asked: “According to the U.S. News magazine, one-third of Americans are illiterate. How can this be in a nation as advanced as the United States?” The American students were nonplussed. They had no answer. It was an embarrassing moment. But their ignorance was a reflection of the ignorance of the American public in general.
In 1988, Arthur Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times, told his fellow newspaper publishers that 60 million Americans, a third of the adult population, couldn’t read. This must have shocked them, but what did they do about it? They created the National Assessment of Adult Illiteracy, which keeps track of the problem but doesn’t solve it.
The latest statistics report that 14 percent (32 million) of U.S. adults can’t read. Twenty-one percent (48 million) read below a 5th grade level. Sixty-three percent of prison inmates can’t read. And with compulsory schooling in America, all of these illiterates and semi-illiterates spent years in American schools learning to read. So obviously, something is wrong with the way reading is taught in American schools.
How is it that America was once the most literate nation on Earth? The answer is simple: The method used in teaching reading was the phonics method. It was Noah Webster’s "blue-backed speller," based on the phonetic method that made Americans the most literate people on Earth. Early Americans were determined to make sure that every child could read the Bible, and that is why children had to be taught.
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Sam Blumenfeld (photo)