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Johnny’s Dad Can’t Read Either

A recent study of adult literacy in the US shows a big decline in reading proficiency among college graduates.

While more Americans are graduating from college, and more than ever are applying for admission, far fewer are leaving higher education with the skills needed to comprehend routine data, such as reading a table about the relationship between blood pressure and physical activity, according to the federal study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics.

The experts who this stuff have no explanation for the drop but this guy has a start.

“The declining impact of education on our adult population was the biggest surprise for us, and we just don’t have a good explanation,” said Mark S. Schneider, commissioner of education statistics. “It may be that institutions have not yet figured out how to teach a whole generation of students who learned to read on the computer and who watch more TV. It’s a different kind of literacy.”

He’s right. The kind of literacy these researchers are testing is completely different from what what is taught in most schools. We teach reading in an academic setting, not real world literacy and there is a big difference.

There’s a much bigger problem beyond that, however, and that is life in modern day America. Our society does very little to encourage adult literacy. Our leaders don’t read and are proud of it. The popular media glorifies people who spout unqualified opinion and denigrates anyone who’s actually done the work necessary to become an expert in a particular field.

We also make it possible, if not easy, to go through life without having to read anything longer than the crawl at the bottom of the “news” channel screen. We certainly don’t expect anyone to read about and understand the complex scientific and social problems we face.

The talking heads on your favorite TV or radio show will explain exactly what you need to know and how you should feel about every issue. Or at least every one they think is important.

adult literacy


  1. Gmarc

    The study you cite is one I sent to those faculty who work
    for me as mentors to the freshmen class at our college.
    I believe you’re right on track with Johnny’s dad. Have you
    ever noticed what’s available in used bookstores frequented
    by people who do read? Look at the sheer volume of romance
    novels. Reading men are closeted. I’m convinced of that.
    And the result is that my students aren’t reading assignments.
    You should hear people read aloud in the classroom: it is so
    painful. Nor do they understand what they do read.

  2. joffrey jones

    The decline in adult literacy is the emerging critical issue for educators. As adults, most parents don’t read, even if they can, and many can’t read any better–or as well as–their children who are struggling readers. We look for role models for behavior, civic responsibility, personal values, and the like, but adults fall short in modeling intellectual behaviors like this cornerstone to learning.

    On responder referenced romance novels as a scourge among female readers. Men who do read often read spy or detective thrillers. (I must admit that I have not recently opened my Shamus Heaney translation of Beowulf, though I did request it from my son last year as a Christmas gift.)

    As long as we see declining reading interest and ability in adults and the greater community, we will never win the literacy wars in our high schools and colleges. Perhaps we need pop culture models to espouse reading as the key to personal and intellectual growth. Something must motivate us more–sheer enjoyment in the written word does not seem to suffice in the 21st century.

  3. Rhonda Stone

    I think a few interesting things have been said that, if one really thought about it, point to the real culprit behind America’s reading woes.

    Americans no longer have an appetite for books rich with imagery and ideas. Why not? If they were interesting to past generations, why wouldn’t they be interesting to the current generation? Hmmm. It’s an interesting thought.

    Johnny can’t read because his dad can’t read. Okay. Well, Johnny was taught to read with phonics. His dad was taught to read with whole language. So, what’s wrong with this picture? Hmmm. Another interesting thought.

    It should not escape educators or most Americans that state reading scores for fourth graders are increasing dramatically while the nation’s report card — National Assessment of Educational Progress tests, which change little from year to year — show that fourth grade reading scores have increased only two points over the past 13 years (don’t believe the government spin; look at the numbers for yourselves). Two points of gain for reading and 15 points of gain for math, even though reading reform has benefitted from BILLIONS upon BILLIONS of dollars of federal and state funding. See the intrigue? State scores are rising dramatically; NAEP scores for states remain virtually flat.

    Okay. Here’s one wild answer to the puzzle: Neither phonics advocates nor whole language theorists properly identified what the brain actually does when it reads with excellece, therefore, reading theory has been flawed for decades. College grads don’t read well nor do their children because reading isn’t taught properly. Pleasure reading isn’t a pleasure any longer because very few people read very well.

    What a concept: Reading theory is flawed and the source of most reading problems.

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