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More than just reading: Why low literacy has a lasting impact

Encapsulating the importance of literacy in just a few snappy paragraphs is a tricky feat, to say the least. It’s certainly easy to take reading for granted. But from newspaper articles and community memos to amendments on a ballot and job applications, there’s no doubt that sufficient reading literacy skills mean the difference between navigating life seamlessly and finding everyday tasks insurmountable.

Reading is an essential building block of lasting success. Despite this, reading is vexing for a sizable group of children and adults alike: The National Assessment of Educational Progress’ 2022 reading assessment underscores that students’ reading scores are on a troubling decline, and a report on adult literacy and numeracy from the Institute of Education Sciences notes 48 million U.S. adults had low skills in English literacy as of 2017.

Why literacy is intertwined with equity

It’s also worth noting that improving reading literacy is key in the journey toward achieving equity for every student. 

According to reporting on literacy from EdSurge, students of color may bear more of the impact of failed reading instruction. For example, the California Department of Education notes that while fewer than one-quarter of Black and Latino students in Oakland are on track when it comes to reading literacy, roughly three-quarters of their white peers are.

Additionally, adults who test below Level 2 on the National Center for Education Statistics’ Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies literacy scale are overrepresented in the prison population, especially among incarcerated minority groups. 

According to the report, “adults at Level 1 in literacy can ‘read relatively short … texts to locate a single piece of information that is identical to or synonymous with the information given in the question or directive’ and can ‘enter personal information onto a document’ when ‘[l]ittle, if any, competing information is present.’ However, adults at Level 1 typically are not successful in performing skills at the higher levels (e.g., ‘compare and contrast or reason about information requested’ or ‘navigate within digital texts to access and identify information from various parts of a document,’ both of which are Level 2 literacy skills).”

Of course, while a low literacy level doesn’t directly lead to a higher likelihood of incarceration, it’s part and parcel in a group of factors that make it difficult for learners to secure a safe, productive future. With all of this in mind, the stakes are incredibly high for getting reading and literacy instruction right—both for children and our communities. 

What are the effects of low literacy? Examining literacy’s impacts from childhood to adulthood

Why is literacy important? The process of learning to read can impact the trajectory of students’ lives for decades to come—whether that means opening up the future pathways children dream about or making learners’ future goals more difficult to achieve than necessary.

[READ: “In-class activities for building literacy in the early grades”]

In this section, we’ll go into more detail about the challenges and consequences of low literacy at all stages of an individual’s life.

Why literacy is important in education

An article examining data on how children learn to read notes that most students develop some degree of reading fluency between first and third grade. However, troubles in literacy experiences early on could influence learners’ scholarly journeys for years to come.

[READ: “Raising reading fluency to improve K-12 literacy”]

According to media literacy resource Reading Rockets, literacy skills are tied to lasting achievement at school—even though the development of these skills happens early in children’s lives. This makes perfect sense: Children with robust reading skills will likely find it easier to complete activities at school as well as homework, leading to success and heightened self-esteem. With solid literacy skills, they’re well on their way to becoming engaged lifelong learners.

Likewise, given that material in later classes will rely on the assumption that students have solid literacy skills, learners grappling with reading may struggle to keep up as their classes progress in difficulty and complexity.

[READ: “3 steps for nonfiction reading comprehension”]

Take math class, for instance. Even if students have a solid understanding of key math concepts, they’ll still have to use literacy skills to decode questions on more analytical tests and assignments—think story-based problems. This puts students with low literacy at a disadvantage. Likewise, these struggling learners may experience difficulties in humanities-based classes when it comes to interpreting the meaning of written passages, forming opinions about primary or secondary sources, and similar tasks.

Students who find themselves unable to keep up with their peers at school may also struggle with issues surrounding their mental and emotional health. They might not be keen on asking for extra help from classroom instructors, for instance, or they could experience anxiety about participating in class. Sadly, this may lead to subsequent performance issues at school.

The importance of literacy skills in the workforce

Of course, the impacts of low literacy also persist beyond graduation—particularly as students enter the job market. 

Employment opportunities

Because plenty of workplace skills rely on a solid foundation of reading, low literacy could have a negative impact when it comes to securing—and maintaining—steady employment. In a column about the role literacy plays in children’s development, Dr. Kirk Panneton, M.D., writes that literacy also encompasses intellectual, cultural, and technological capabilities. “In the workplace,” Panneton says, “[adequate literacy] may mean being proficient in several computer programs, knowing how to research and solve complex problems, or handling multiple projects.”

Income and financial outcomes

Low literacy skills may also make it difficult for individuals to both secure higher incomes and maintain financial well-being. 

A more globally focused UNESCO study on the social and economic impacts of illiteracy notes that although individuals who are either illiterate or functionally illiterate have incomes that largely flatline throughout their careers, people with higher levels of education—and higher literacy rates in turn—see an average income at the end of their careers that’s two to three times higher than what they earned when they began working. 

In the same vein, reading literacy is integral to financial literacy and outcomes. Without adequate literacy skills, tasks such as reading the fine print when applying for mortgages and credit cards, educating oneself on financial best practices, and borrowing money responsibly can be challenging. Although low literacy in and of itself doesn’t lead to poverty, it’s no wonder why an analysis of literacy and socioeconomic outcomes in the Michigan Journal of Economics notes that literacy has a sizable influence on socioeconomic status.

Business productivity

It’s not only employees who may suffer due to lower literacy skills. Businesses themselves may also face lowered productivity and profits as a result of insufficient literacy and numeracy. In a report from the World Literacy Foundation on the economic and social impacts of illiteracy, the authors note that businesses may face problems such as:

  • Heightened costs from addressing incorrect orders or issuing refunds.
  • Lost customers as a result of insufficient communication.
  • Faulty communication or misunderstandings.

However, the report’s authors do note that organizations can take steps to curb potential issues: Among a survey of businesses that have offered language and literacy training to employees, a promising 7 in 10 respondents said they experienced cost savings as a result.

How low-level literacy creates barriers in the civic arena

Why is literacy important in society? Consider what it takes to comprehend information in newspaper articles, to read educational placards at a museum, to use information from public transportation schedules, or to read through the warnings on a prescription pamphlet. 

We encounter these types of everyday text-related tasks almost constantly in the public sphere—and perhaps don’t think twice about our ability to complete them—but they can be obstacles for those with low-level literacy. All of this impacts an individual’s ability to be an empowered community member and active participant in the civic arena.

Elections and voting

Nonprofit investigative publication ProPublica asserts that individuals who face literacy troubles may find elections particularly difficult. According to reporters Annie Waldman and Aliyya Swaby, “for people who struggle to read, the electoral process can become its own form of literacy test—creating impenetrable barriers at every step, from registration to casting a ballot.” Indeed, the reporters’ analysis found a tie between low literacy rates in a county and the likelihood of lower voter participation. 

Literacy tests were once used directly to effectively disenfranchise immigrant, low-income, and minority voters in certain parts of the U.S. The insidious impact is still visible in the electoral process today—just in a different form.

Health and wellness

Limited literacy can make it difficult for people to access the health-related information they need, from pointers on how to use medications and medical devices to directions on how to use and how often to access different types of preventive care. 

Unfortunately, a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services summary on language and literacy as a social determinant of health highlights a positive correlation between low literacy and chronic conditions such as diabetes and cancer. With literacy difficulties, it can be hard for individuals to manage their health—potentially leading to poorer health outcomes in the long run. 

Intergenerational outcomes

Naturally, it can be difficult for parents struggling with literacy to ensure their children don’t experience the same troubles. However, this cycle can certainly be broken: The World Literacy Foundation report mentioned previously shares that adults who work to address their low literacy skills will often see a net-positive impact on their offspring. 

“These newly learning adults can help their children with homework, encourage enthusiasm in the learning process, and communicate effectively with teachers,” the report’s authors write.

With schools facing a literacy crisis, how can educators move forward? In our K-12 guide to reading instruction, you’ll glean more insights into promising, forward-thinking strategies for teaching literacy.

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