End Illiteracy in English

The problem of English functional illiteracy is a very real nightmare, but the solution is easier than you would ever dare to dream.

Why Media Coverage of Literacy News Is Confusing

Two Newspaper Reports

A newspaper article by Clay Jenkinson posted on December 12, 2010 in www.bismarcktribune.com (Bismarck, North Dakota) lamented that in a recent test of 470,000 fifteen-year-old students from 25 nations, the U.S. was “dead average” in literacy. The article lists those nations scoring both better and worse than the U.S. The nations are not in alphabetical order and are therefore presumably by ranking. Those nations scoring better than the U.S.: Shanghai-China, Korea, Finland, Hong Kong-China, Singapore, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, Australia, Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Estonia, Switzerland, Poland, and Iceland. Those scoring worse than the U.S.: Liechtenstein, Sweden, Germany, Ireland, France, Chinese Taipei, Denmark, and the United Kingdom. The underlined nations do not have alphabetic languages and may take somewhat longer to learn than alphabetic languages, but they do not have the disadvantage of English spelling in that a certain symbol or two-symbol combination always represents the same word, whereas, each English letter or letter-combination (of up to five letters) may represent as many as sixty different phonemes — the smallest sound in a language or dialect used to distinguish between syllables and words. None of the alphabetic languages other than English have this disadvantage either! Three English-speaking nations scored better than the U.S.: Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. The home of our “mother tongue” (English), the United Kingdom, surprisingly scored the worst of all.

Clay Jenkinson’s article says the study shows the U.S. “now ranks 14th in reading literacy among the world’s nations. . . . U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan put the results in the correct perspective: ‘The hard truth is that other high-performing nations have passed us by during the last two decades. . . . In a highly competitive knowledge economy, maintaining the educational status quo means America’s students are effectively losing ground.’ . . . If the 19th century belonged to the nations that embraced the industrial revolution, and the 20th century belonged to the nations that could put together an unstoppable war machine (the Soviet Union and the U.S.), the 21st century is going to belong to the nations that produce the best engineers, systems analysts and computer programmers, the nations that master information systems and figure out how to squeeze the most efficiency and prosperity out of the shrinking resource pool of the planet. . . . Meanwhile, in a single generation, the United States has fallen from first place to ninth place in the percentage of young people with college degrees — at a time when higher education means more to the future of America than at any time in our history.”

On the same day, December 12, 2010, an article appeared on page A3 of the Salt Lake Tribune titled “Adults fault parents for school woes.” It was a long article which basically said that parents are blaming themselves for their children’s problems in school. Among other things it said “67 percent also believe the U.S. is falling behind the rest of the world when it comes to education . . . three quarters rate the quality of education at their child’s school as excellent or good. Most say their child’s school is doing a good job preparing the students for college, the work force and life as an adult.” These statements do not “add up.”

If parents believe American education is falling behind other nations, how can most of the parents believe their child’s school is doing an excellent or good job? How can this be true if 48.7% of U.S. adults cannot read and write well enough to hold an above-poverty-level-wage job (the most statistically reliable definition of functional illiteracy) as the most extensive and statistically accurate studies of U.S. adult literacy prove (see my ending functional illiteracy in English website)? How can this be true if “the number (of functional illiterates) is growing annually by more than 2 million, federal officials say.” as reported in an article on page 4F of the February 21, 1988 Salt Lake Tribune titled “Reading Writing on the Wall? America May Face Literacy Crisis”? (It may very well be worse now.) How can this be true when college professors and employers strongly disagree (see page A12 of the January 9, 1998 Salt Lake Tribune article titled “New High School Grads Can’t Write, Say Profs”)? Here are the percentages of college professors (C) and employers (E) who rate recent high school graduates as poor or fair on their two worst complaints about high school graduates: grammar and spelling, 77% C, 77% E; ability to write clearly, 81% C, 73% E. Here are the percentages of college professors (C), employers (E), parents (P), and teachers (T) who say that a high school diploma is NOT a guarantee that the student has learned the basics: 76% C, 63% E, 32% P, and 26% T.

Are Parents Mainly to Blame For Reading Difficulties?

Although parents and teachers both are part of the reason that some students do not learn to read, there are many reasons why a particular student may not learn to read. Arranged in no particular order, some of these reasons may be:

  • the non-reader or his parents or friends place little importance on learning to read;
  • the non-reader is far more involved in numerous activities than in spending the time needed to learn to read, as explained in the next paragraph;
  • the non-reader goes to school hungry, frightened (over gang violence, bullying, or classmates who bring weapons to school, for example), worried over problems at home or with schoolwork, or embarrassed (about failing to read aloud properly in class or about his old, ragged clothing, for example);
  • the non-reader has poor eyesight, poor hearing, or learning problems;
  • the non-reader is involved in gang activities;
  • the non-reader is involved in taking or selling drugs;
  • the non-reader doesn’t like the teacher, or the teacher is not effective at teaching this student; or
  • the teaching methods or textbooks used are not effective in teaching students to read.

In today’s world, besides all the school and societal problems which hinder learning, there are many fun but time-consuming activities interfering with learning, which did not exist in simpler times — before the twentieth century. Some of these pleasurable activities include music on radio or iPods, movies, television, musical concerts or recordings, video movies and games, newly developed sports, profitable full- and part-time jobs, and gang and other youth activities.

Like the items in Pandora’s Box, once these time-consuming or distracting activities have been loosed upon society, they cannot be taken back. It will be extremely difficult to get students to spend the long hours learning to read that were spent in more simple times. This is especially true if — due to teaching methods inferior to the memorization and dull drill used in prior centuries — the student is having difficulty learning. In this case, it will be very difficult, perhaps impossible, to persuade the student to spend time on an unpleasant and difficult activity rather than a multitude of readily available pleasant activities.

The REAL Cause of Reading Difficulty

One or more of the reasons mentioned previously will apply to almost every student. There is only one hindrance to learning that affects every student, however. Amazingly, it is the primary reason that learning to read is so difficult, and you almost never hear it mentioned as a cause of reading difficulty: the spelling of words. English spelling is illogical, inconsistent, chaotic, and is by far the most difficult-to-learn spelling of any language. There are 1768 ways of spelling 40 phonemes (the smallest sound used to distinguish between syllables and words). Only 40 are needed — one each. There are no spelling rules in English that do not have exceptions. Some of the exceptions even have exceptions! A computer programmed with all of the spelling rules was able to correctly spell only about half of a list of 17,000 common English words. As a result, the only way to learn to read English is to learn each word in your reading vocabulary one-at-a-time by rote memory or by repeated use of the word. As adult readers, our eyes glide easily over a large number of traps for beginning readers. Most of us learned to read as children and do not think about the spelling until we have to look up a word in the dictionary.

Speaking of dictionaries: a large part of the problem with English spelling is the fact that Dr. Samuel Johnson made a serious linguistic mistake when he prepared the first widely-accepted English dictionary. Instead of freezing the spelling of phonemes — as an alphabetic language should be spelled — he froze the spelling of words. In 1755 when his dictionary was published, the English language was a conglomeration of the words from eight different languages: the original Celtic and the language of every conqueror who had occupied England up to that time — Norse, Icelandic, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, German, Danish, and French. When choosing the spelling of each word in the dictionary, in most cases he spelled the word as he thought it was spelled in the language of origin — and sometimes he was mistaken. He did this so that the origin of the words could be traced.

As you know, the pronunciation of many words changes with time, so what was bad in 1755 became increasingly worse. Henry Hitchings book, The Secret Life of Words, published in 2008, states that the English language now has words (and usually their spelling) adopted from 350 languages!

How Long Does It — and Should It — take to Learn to Read?

Dr. Frank Laubach went all around the world teaching adults to read in well over 300 alphabetical languages. He found that in 95% of these languages he could teach students to read fluently in from one to twenty days. In some of the simplest languages, such as one or more dialects of the Philippine language, he could teach adults to read in one hour! He found that in 98% of the languages, he could teach students to read in less than three months. Although our familiarity with English makes this seem amazing, you are challenged to see the facts for yourself in his books, Teaching the World to Read and Forty Years With the Silent Billion. In these books he never mentions being unable to teach a student to read. In present day America, most students who learn to read require more than two years, and almost half of American students do not learn to read! At present, 48.7% of U.S. adults are functionally illiterate; they can read a thousand or so simple words they learned by sight in the first three grades in school but they cannot read and write well enough to hold an above-poverty-level-wage job.

The reason learning to read English is difficult is NOT due to the difficulty of the English language itself. The grammar and syntax of English is neither among the easiest nor among the most difficult. The grammar and syntax of English is easier, for example, than many of the languages in Europe. The students in every one of these languages can be taught to read in less than three months.

Solve Problems or Merely Fight the Symptoms of Problems?

As a result of the difficulty of learning to read being due to the spelling, which is not being corrected and thereby SOLVING the problem, all present attempts at teaching reading are nothing more than fighting the symptoms of the problem. This is like taking aspirin, decongestants, and cough medicine to fight the symptoms of pneumonia instead of taking antibiotics to cure the pneumonia. If you think this is an exaggeration, please take a stroll down the aisles of any large research library and look at the hundreds of books on teaching English reading and compare with the number of books on any other subject in elementary school. The 1960 Encyclopedia of Educational Research devoted 151 pages to reading research, but only two to five pages to each of the other subjects. Since there have been no changes in the teaching of reading which have made a statistically significant improvement, that same proportion of reading research to research in other subjects is undoubtedly still true today.

The Reason the Two News Reports are Confusing

Here is the most simple and logical explanation for the contradictions in the newspaper articles at the start of this blog. As you know, we human beings not only have the ability to do as we please (within the constraints of our surroundings and our physical limitations, of course), we also have the ability to believe as we please. As a result — in most cases — people will believe what they want to believe until they see proof — that they cannot continue to ignore — that their belief is wrong. You have probably had the same experience that I have had. In an argument, you prove to someone that your argument is correct. You see that person a couple of days later and he or she says, “There must have been something wrong in that argument, I still believe. . . . (and they repeat what they said during the argument).” People do not want to believe that what they learned as a child — or even something that they merely assumed at any time in their life — is wrong. As you know, people absolutely detest being wrong. People want to believe that, although most American schools may be poor or fair, their child’s school is doing a good job. They want to believe that their child’s teacher is doing a good job because they want their child to succeed in life. They want to believe that their child is smart and will do well if properly motivated. They tend to blame themselves for not properly motivating their child because they are so “busy.” They don’t have time or don’t know how to help their child with their homework, for example, as they feel that they should.

A similar explanation is true for English literacy, in general. People want to be able to read. Those who can read do not want to believe that a shockingly large percentage of their fellow Americans are illiterate because they do not know what to do about it. They want to believe that our political and educational leaders are making the right decisions about how to improve education. Parents are busy “making a living” and having as much fun as they can when they are not working. They do not know how to solve educational problems and furthermore they do not believe it is their job to do so. Everyone has their own narrow field of expertise and they feel perfectly justified in leaving such educational problems to the “experts,” not realizing that the “experts” are also “busy” and do not want to make the effort needed to change the status quo — even for the better.

Until such time as people learn that illiteracy is a devastating problem to illiterates and have a little compassion for their pain and suffering, and until such time as people learn that illiteracy is costing each of us — reader and non-reader alike — thousands of dollars each year and is definitely harming our nation and our relationship with other nations, the problem will continue to grow worse. We have already slipped several ranks lower in economic and educational values. Our survival as the leading nation in our world may soon come to an end if we do not make a good education a possibility for all Americans, not just slightly less than half of them, as is presently the case. And the foundation of a good education is the ability to read.

Do Not Miss This!

Here is a very important concept for you to ponder. A little thought will reveal that it is quite obviously true, but in our daily activities we often respond in a certain way because we unthinkingly believe it is NOT true: Something is not true just because we believe it (the earth has never been flat even though almost everyone believed it was at one time). Something is not untrue just because we believe it is untrue. What do people want to believe? They obviously want to believe that what they believe is true — because they do not want to be wrong. But whether or not something is true depends upon the provable facts of the matter.

Whether you believe this or not, the book Let’s End Our Literacy Crisis, Revised Edition can definitely and permanently solve our very real literacy crisis. If you think that is too bold a claim, you are challenged to prove to yourself whether or not there is a literacy crisis. If you believe and act upon the recommendations of this book, over 600 million English-speaking functional illiterates around the world (including more than 93 million in the U.S. alone) will be eternally grateful to you. Even if you do not believe the overall conclusion and do not take any action, you will undoubtedly find information that will be of more value to you than the price of the book. Our ending functional illiteracy in English website has an even later version of this award-winning 265-page book available as and e-book at no cost or obligation of any kind in the left-hand column of the website. This website gives a very good introduction to our humanitarian project of ending illiteracy. It lists five brief statements of the problem and six brief statements of the solution which can be read in six minutes. Each of the statements are proven by clicking “Read More” after each statement. If you are not in the mood to read for six minutes, click “Media Page” near the topf of the left-hand column.

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