One-third of all adults are functionally illiterate in the United States. Twenty-five million Americans can't decipher the words on a medicine bottle, in a newspaper or a letter from their child's teacher. An additional 35 million read at an elementary level - not well enough to function in the information age.
We are falling behind, according to Jonathan Kozol, author of "Illiterate America." He says the United States ranks only 22nd in literacy among United Nations members. This assessment is based on the number of books and newspapers that are bought per capita.The National Assessment of Educational Progress agrees that the nation is falling behind. It said that while most children can read, nearly 40 percent of 13-year-olds lack such "intermediate" skills as the ability to organize information by paragraphs or to make generalizations based on what they have read.
While our literacy is nothing to brag about, our efforts to improve it are.
A small sample of literacy programs throughout the United States shows dedication and originality:
In California, a 6-year-old project called Computers on the Move sends out a van equipped with a dozen computers to teach farm workers, cannery workers and refugees. And the Evans Community School in Los Angeles is open virtually 24-hours a day to help adult immigrants.
In Colorado, the Adult Learning Source began in 1964 with one learning center and has expanded to 10 locations. A staff of more than 600 volunteers handles the teaching.
In Kentucky, the state legislature appropriated $900,000 for the Literacy Commission, which targets adults who read below the fifth-grade level. In the same state, Older Worker Readiness Program helps people over the age of 55 get ready to enter the work force. Reading is one of the skills taught.
The Literacy Center in St. Paul, Minn., gets broad-based support. Funds come from private corporations, community groups and from the St. Paul school districts.
The Massachusetts Commonwealth Literacy Campaign targets not only high school dropouts and displaced workers who lack the reading skills to be retrained, but mothers as well. Their low-level reading skills may jeopardize their children's chances in school.
Every county in Utah has at least one free program to teach people to read. Through school districts, the Utah State Prison, local libraries, Hill Air Force Base, the Guadalupe Center and more - help is available.
In short, every state is doing something.
Nice work but not enough, says Kozol. "Together, all the federal, state, municipal and private literacy programs in the nation reach a maximum of 4 percent of the illiterate population.
"What should be done?" he asks, then answers, "We need an all-out literacy war in the United States."
Without it, he predicts, "At some point, not in our own but in our children's or grandchildren's lives, there will cease to be sufficient funds to underwrite the growing millions of illiterate adults . . . housing subsidies, food supplements and health care will decline to levels that no longer can alleviate the pain . . ." The disenfranchised, he predicts, will become violent.
Kozol believes more money and volunteers are needed. He said we now spend $6 per year on each illiterate person.
In the three years since Kozol's book was published, the number of volunteers has grown. In Utah, as in the rest of the nation, more of those who can read are volunteering to help those who can't.
Dory Donner of the Literacy Center in Salt Lake, says the number of volunteers doubles each year. The center currently has 150 volunteers working one-on-one to teach reading, and 50 are teaching English as a second language.
Funds are another matter. Those in charge say grass-roots volunteer programs will never reach even half of the illiterate population without more money.
For example, the Utah Literacy and English as a Second Language Coalition doesn't have enough money to get a statewide telephone hotline, something Constance Spetz, the state's VISTA literacy coordinator, says is needed badly. "That (a hotline) would be the easiest way for people who want help to find out where to go," she says.
Meanwhile, anyone who wants to volunteer to be a tutor or who wants help learning to read should call Spetz at 944-0404, in Salt Lake.