Recent literacy rates for Laos give reason to be optimistic. There has been steady and significant improvement over the past years. The CIA world Factbook for 2013 puts literacy, defined as those who can read and write aged over 15, at 72.7% (male: 82.5%, female: 63.2%). The question is what level of reading ability makes someone literate. If the long-term goal is to create a productive human resource base, literacy must go far beyond the level of reading a signboard or being able to write one’s name.
Literacy is one indicator of economic development and acts as a benchmark for MDC (More developed Country) status. The UK, Germany, France, Japan, Italy, Canada, Spain, South Korea and the US all have reported literacy rates of 97% or above showing a strong correlation between literacy and development index ranking. At the same time, literacy is but one factor in overall economic health considering that the 98% literacy rate of Greece hasn’t been a protection against economic woes.
Strangely enough, there is the case of a weak correlation between literacy and reading scores even within one country. Literacy rates for the US are reported at 99%, but at the same time a 2009 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) places 67% of US 4th graders below proficiency in reading. Do these numbers tell us that almost everyone in the US can read, but simply cannot read well?
The dramatic discrepancy in numbers could come from varying definitions of literacy and reading. The CIA world Factbook, which is commonly sourced for comparative literacy rates throughout the world, admits that there is no universal definition and standard for literacy, but uses the common definition of, “The ability to read and write at a specified age.” Should we conclude then that 33% of US students are proficient when they are in the 4th grade and then by the “specified age” jump to 99%?
The 99% appears to be an internal number. As quoted from the CIA Factbook homepage, “Detailing the standards that individual countries use to assess the ability to read and write is beyond the scope of the Factbook.” I’m sure everyone wants to be in the 99% club. Is it that PISA and NAEP scores are simply more rigorous and therefore more revealing?
In another study, Renaissance Learning, Inc. (2011) evaluated the level of reading material of high school students. It surveyed 2.6 million students in grades 1-12 from 24,465 schools in 50 states to find out what they are reading and to what level. Complexity of the text was determined through objective measures of sentence/word length, and frequency of difficult words. The results are that the average high school student in the US is reading material of a 5th grade level, certainly not at the level needed for academia or for employment.
We could feel more assured if these results were telling us that the 99% represents the percentage of people who are able to decode text (read) but no necessarily use their reading skills to acquire productive levels of knowledge (literacy). Is it simply the difference between those who have a driver’s license and those who actually drive? Sadly, there are indications that among the 99% who have licenses, many simply do not have the ability to drive. They were never taught how to.
These claims were made by Rudolph Flesch in his book, “Why Johnny Can’t Read” (1955) and by Diane McGuiness in, “Why Our Children Can’t Read” (1999). Both make a simple point. The ability to read does not come naturally like speaking or walking. It must be taught. Both criticize the popularity of the whole language approach at the expense of phonics. The result is that some kids do learn to read, but those without a more phonemic understanding of the alphabet cannot. Just because some can swim doesn’t mean that the rest should be left to drown.
Opposing camps will surely continue to argue about numbers and results. Nice numbers justify and bad numbers vilify. Amidst all the numbers and discussion, Flesch and McGuiness say they’ve found the target. They say simply that we’re not teaching kids how to read.