By 2027, Smartphone Literacy Levels Will Exceed Those of 24 Million U.S. Adults

Posted By Terri Williams on March 30, 2017 at 8:21 am
By 2027, Smartphone Literacy Levels Will Exceed Those of 24 Million U.S. Adults

Are you smarter than a smartphone? Will you still be in 10 years? The questions aren’t crazy. Literacy levels among American adults have stayed pretty stagnant in the past 25 years. According to a new report by the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Project Literacy, a global campaign founded and funded by Pearson, computers currently read below human levels, but that will change within the next decade.

Consider these facts:

  • Machine literacy already exceeds the literacy abilities of 3% of the U.S. population who are non-literate (struggle to understand letters and numbers).
  • 50% of adults cannot read a book written at an eighth-grade level.
  • 32 million American adults cannot read a road sign. Yet 10 million self-driving cars are predicted to be on the road by 2020.
  • There are more software engineers in the United States than school teachers.
  • Worldwide, 758 million people don’t have basic literacy skills.

Digesting the facts

How is it possible that 50% of American adults cannot read a book written on an eight-grade level? Jennifer Young, director of Social Impact Programs at Pearson, tells GoodCall® there are many reasons for this – and the other staggering statistics – in the report. “Growing up, some people may have lacked sufficient support  from those around them, which made them more likely to fall through the gaps at school; maybe they had parents who didn’t speak English or had little schooling; maybe they dropped out of school or had learning disabilities that were never addressed.”

Geography also may play a role. “Although there is free compulsory schooling, lack of a high-quality education is one of the primary reasons why adults may suffer from low-level literacy skills or illiteracy,” according to Alfred Tatum, dean and professor of the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Tatum tells GoodCall® there is often a link between quality of education and geography of opportunity – and illiteracy or semi-literacy levels are typically higher in urban and rural areas with high poverty rates. “While federal, state, and local policies have been legislated for more than 50 years to shape literacy reform efforts, the nation has continued to miss the mark with a large segment of the American population.”

He says the affected individuals may have a different view of the importance of literacy. “Many adults have lost confidence in reading and writing as tools of protection or view literacy acquisition as less immediate to their need for immediate economic and personal survival.” And since there’s not a national plan, Tatum says each state has the liberty to create its own strategy for dealing with this problem.

“Lastly, fewer people are entering the field of literacy education to address illiteracy among adults, adolescents, or young children,” Tatum laments. “I would probably have a different response if just as many people were entering the field of literacy education as there are people studying algorithms or AI.”

In fact, technology is not only outpacing some humans but also serving to point out their shortcomings. Alicia Levi, president and CEO of Reading Is Fundamental, tells GoodCall®, “The need for a more educated workforce highlights the literacy deficits of many adults.” While a high school diploma (and sometimes less) once was sufficient to land a good-paying job, those days are over. “In the Information Age, however, the skills required sometimes involve a postsecondary education, and by 2020, 65% of jobs will require such an education.” A recent report reveals that half of high-paying jobs will require coding skills.

The importance of literacy

And as we become a more digital society, the definition of literacy may change. According to Young, ‘The reality is that not being able to read doesn’t just mean you can’t read a good book or an article online, it means you are at a disadvantage when it comes to making decisions that affect your life, the lives of your family and your community.”

She notes that literacy provides the skills that people need to be active and productive members of society, and can be linked to other issues both social and economic. “Without progress on literacy, we inhibit progress for women and girls, we risk malnutrition and infant mortality, we risk unemployment and homelessness, we risk incarceration and violent crime, and we risk 1.2 trillion dollars to the global economy,” Young explains.

It’s a view that’s shared by Tatum. “It can make the difference between being empowered or oppressed; those who are literate generally control the destiny of those who are not.” On the other hand, he explains that individuals with strong literacy skills can enrich their own lives in particular and society in general.

In fact, a lack of literacy prevents people from improving their quality of life. “Literacy is an important part of any free society, and in the 21st century, literacy skills are so vital that even the business community has taken notice,” says Levi.  “A recent report from the Business Roundtable points to a potential shortage of up to 5 million workers with a postsecondary education by 2020, and at the heart of the skills gap is literacy.” And without instruction early and often, Levi says we can expect this gap to get much worse.  The Advanced Robotics Manufacturing Institute has an ambitious plan to create half a million new jobs. However, those workers will need to be not just literate, but tech-savvy enough to work in a robotics-based environment.

Finding a solution

At first glance – and even at the second and third glance – increasing the literacy rate may appear to be a Herculean task. “Research shows that children of parents with low literacy skills have a 72 percent chance of being at the lowest reading level themselves,” Young says. “So as one priority, we can focus greater attention and resources on adult literacy so that one generation is better equipped to teach the next.”

She also believes that technology can be leveraged in literacy and learning. “For example, Project Literacy is partnering with the nonprofit organization, Worldreader, on a mobile technology project in India called ‘Read to Kids’ that aims to transform the home environment into a literate one by giving parents with young children access to a rich digital library of books accessible through their mobile phones.”

Reading Is Fundamental has an established reputation as a champion of literacy, and Levi says the organization understands that students who cannot read on grade level by the end of third grade might never catch up. “Therefore, RIF is committed to supporting parents and educators, especially of children in preschool to grade 3 through programs like Read for Success, in addition to the development of digital resources for educators.”

Levi says RIF also forms partnerships with business leaders and corporations to sound the alarm about the importance of literacy skills.

And perhaps the problem is not as dismal as it sounds. According to Tatum, society is more literate than it was 100 or even 50 years ago. But he believes it’s difficult to further reduce the levels of illiterate or semi-literate adults and children because it’s difficult to determine the exact causes of illiteracy for any particular individual. However, Tatum states the following unequivocally:

  • Schooling and access to highly prepared teachers matter.
  • Parenting and early access to literacy matter.
  • Reading and writing advocates outside of schools and homes matter.
  • Legislation that shapes and funds national, state, and local literacy movements matters.
  • A national ethos toward intellectualism vs. anti-intellectualism matter.

“If we are serious as a nation, we must work to make it more difficult to remain illiterate,” Tatum declares. “The future and hope of this nation will be anchored by those who are literate, particular by those who view illiteracy as a problem to address instead of finding ways to castigate those who suffer from the pains and humiliations or not being able to read and write.”

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

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