January 11, 2009

According to the US Dept of Education, 14 % of Americans are illiterate; "however, adults who were not able to take the assessment because of a language barrier are included in the indirect estimates and are classified as lacking BPLS [Basic Prose Literacy Skills] on the grounds that they can be considered to be at the lowest level of English literacy."
So the Oakland Chinatown shopkeep who reads the 星岛 (Xing Dao) newspaper every morning might be listed as illiterate, even though he operates his business in Cantonese, Mandarin, Fujianhua, and very basic English. It's the basic-ness of his English that gets him scored as illiterate.
I find it hard to believe that 23% of Californians (the highest in the report) are functionally illiterate, but rather choose to believe that most of this statistic are literate and functional in other languages besides English (according to the city gov't, there are more than 150 languages spoken in Oakland). New York, Florida and Texas also had "illiteracy" rates above 20%. North Dakota, Minnestoa and New Hampshire, bastions of diversity, all came in with the lowest rates at 6%.
More troubling is that 63% of inmates are. No matter how this stat is arrived at, it points to all sorts of institutional and cultural problems.


Anonymous Michael said...

You're probably right. But don't dismiss the sizable minority of people who can't read very well. I work at a bookstore. I have a coworker who reads all the time: trashy romance novels. But when I met her at the community college bookstore, she had signed up for one of the lowest remedial English classes. That blew me away, since she probably reads more than I do. I have another friend who barely can punctuate. And my younger brother had horrible writing skills and earned a master's degree. He asked me to proof his master's papers, since I am a writer and he is not. His writing skills improved. But the papers were not heavy-hitting papers. This is master's work? I asked myself.

Blogger Steven Fama said...

Dear Mr. Horton,

May I suggest not getting too worked up re: illiteracy rates?

Far scarier, if you every now and then you enjoy love great writing, poetry, and heavy thinking, and would like such things to continue, is the aliteracy rate.

Yes, aliteracy. People who can read, but don't.

Blogger Mr. Horton said...


Agreed. I just have a problem at what the study seems to try to suggest, as there are some communities around the country that are truly multilingual, where a deficiency in English wouldn't necessarily correlate to being non-functional in that community.



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