Hidden in Plain Sight: The Secret Epidemic of Illiteracy in the United States

America has a literacy problem, and it’s worse than you think.

Amelia Lake | amelia.lake@yale.edu

The ability to read is an essential skill for navigating the modern world, yet millions of adults in the United States have such poor literacy skills that they are unable to read basic sentences, fill out a job application form, or understand the instructions on their prescription labels. Without intervention, illiteracy has wide-reaching and devastating consequences, condemning its sufferers to shame, isolation, and poverty. Kirsten Levinsohn, executive director of New Haven Reads, a New Haven-based organization that works to foster children’s literacy skills, explains current legislative and community efforts to address this issue.

Text messages. Emails. News articles. Road signs. There is a good chance that you have encountered one of these things today, and odds are, decoding them from letters, to words, to meaning took about as much effort as breathing. The ability to read is something the majority of us take for granted, and yet it is one of the most fundamental skills needed to navigate and be successful in our modern world. But for all too many people—maybe some you know—it is an insurmountable barrier and a source of deep shame.


The numbers are staggering. As of 2022, ThinkImpact reports that an estimated 79% of American adults are literate. To put it another way, one out of every five American adults are functionally illiterate, meaning that today in the United States, almost 65 million people are unable to read basic sentences, fill out a job application form, or understand the instructions on their prescription labels. This is not merely a crisis of the illiterate, but also of the underliterate: a whopping 54 percent of all American adults read at or below a sixth grade level.


“Literacy is a basic human right,” says Kirsten Levinsohn, executive director of the New Haven-based nonprofit New Haven Reads. “Reading is fundamental. You can’t be successful by any measure if you don’t first learn to read…It’s easy not to think about it, especially if it doesn’t impact you. But it’s a tragedy for every child who doesn’t learn how to read, and it’s a tragedy for the family, the community, and the state as well.”


The root of the problem is in early childhood. All too often, students who perform poorly in school are allowed to fall through the cracks. Without proper access to services that can help a struggling reader or identify an undiagnosed reading disability early on, children who are most in need of intervention are simply passed over. “If you haven’t been taught how to read before third grade,” says Levinsohn, “it’s unlikely that you ever will, because teachers are moving on. You miss the transition from ‘learning to read’ to ‘reading to learn’.”


The social and economic toll is nothing short of devastating. Starting in school, illiteracy leads to feelings of inadequacy, shame, and isolation. Students with low levels of literacy are more likely to be chronically absent, suffer behavioral problems, and drop out of school, leading to a cascading chain reaction of negative consequences. Literacy Mid-South estimates that high school dropouts, lacking employment prospects, are almost four times more likely to be arrested and 63 percent more likely to be incarcerated than their peers. The burden is lifelong, with morbid outcomes—illiteracy has strong links to poverty, with some 43 percent of illiterate adults living under the poverty line, and a reduced ability to access health services. According to a study by Nursing, elderly individuals who are illiterate are more likely to die within 6 years than those who can read well enough to understand basic health information.


This suffering is not felt evenly across the board. Illiteracy is strongly generational, meaning that individuals who are illiterate are much more likely to have been raised by illiterate and undereducated parents. “Some people say, ‘Oh, the kids can’t read because the parents don’t care,’ ” says Levinsohn. “First of all, the parents do care. They care a lot—they just don’t have the opportunities that higher-earners have access to.” Indeed, family wealth, along with parental literacy level, is among the strongest predictors of a child’s academic success. According to Regis College, exposure to literature—specifically, being read to and having access to age-appropriate books—is a critical part of fostering a child’s reading skills outside the classroom. Yet more than half of all American families living in poverty (who are disproportionately likely to be people of color, rural, Indigenous, or foreign-born) do not have children’s books in the home. Low-income earners, facing additional financial stress and grueling working hours, have less energy and time to engage in their child’s education. As the saying goes, you don’t know what you don’t know, and this is no less true when it comes to education; illiterate adults often lack the knowledge to recognize when their child is falling behind. The end result is that parents who themselves are illiterate, through no fault of their own, are simply ill-equipped to properly support a child’s academic development.


Says Levinsohn, “what’s happening now in Connecticut is that there are huge gaps in reading attainment, often having to do with disparities in income and race, which reflect the inequities in our society. In New Haven right now, about 30 percent of kids are reading at grade level or better—which, if you say it the other way, means 70 percent aren’t, which is horrendous.”


It is worth noting that these statistics are all pre-pandemic. With school closures interrupting the education of millions of students, the situation has only worsened.


The blame lies partly in curriculum design. “This is not to bash teachers,” says Levinsohn, a former teacher herself. “They went into this field for a reason. They’re all working so hard. But not all of them have been trained in the science of reading, and the science of reading is not universally accepted.”


Levinsohn is referring to the so-called “reading wars”, an ongoing debate over how reading should be taught. This rivalry, which dates back to the 1800s, consists of two opposing schools of thought: whole-language and phonics. Proponents of whole-language theory see learning to read and write English as analogous to learning to speak—“a natural, unconscious process” that is best taught through “unstructured immersion”. Words are taught individually, much like Chinese characters, and children are encouraged to decipher their meaning through context clues. Phonics, on the other hand, sees written language more as a code to be deciphered. This method emphasizes phonemic awareness, meaning that it teaches children to identify the constituent sounds of words to sound them out. Despite overwhelming evidence that the phonics approach leads to better reading outcomes, there is no federal requirement for schools to implement it in their curricula.


For the past 20 years, there has been little change in reading outcomes. As Levinsohn puts it: “Obviously, doing the same thing over and over is not working.”


The “Right to Read” Act, passed last June by the Connecticut General Assembly under the sponsorship of Senator Patricia Miller, aims to close some of the gaps. With its $12.8 million budget, the bill makes provisions to ensure school districts can hire reading coaches for students who are falling behind. Furthermore, it establishes a Center for Literacy Research and Reading Success, which will oversee the development of reading curricula for students in grades PreK-3. Its focus is, in part, on ensuring that school districts—which previously had complete autonomy in designing their reading curricula—adhere to evidence-based practices of reading instruction. “There is a proven method for literacy instruction,” wrote Miller in an opinion piece for the Stamford Advocate, “and that we need to use it in all of our Connecticut classrooms. Our students are entitled to it.”


Levinsohn is optimistic about the bill’s potential. “It just needs to become a priority,” she says. “There needs to be money and resources at the lowest level so kids are getting the support they need.”


But legislation isn’t the only means of intervention. Community-based organizations like New Haven Reads can and do have a tremendous impact. The nonprofit, initially founded as a book bank, has been a part of the New Haven community for over 20 years and offers a number of programs intended to support literacy development in struggling children. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, it sponsored school field trips for grades PreK-5 where students got to pick out five books to take home with them. “Unfortunately, a lot of kids don’t have books at home, or maybe they only have one or two,” Levinsohn explains. “We really try to put out books that would be at their grade level and their interest level. We also try very hard with this program and our tutoring program to have books that are diverse and have characters that represent our child readers.” All in all, New Haven Reads donates over 100,000 books a year, and has donated almost 2 million since its founding.


While the pandemic has forced New Haven Reads to temporarily shutter some of its usual activities, “we are still giving out books,” says Levinsohn. “Frankly, a lot to teachers. A lot of them don’t have books in their classrooms, which is quite sad. And even more sad is that a lot of schools have had to close their libraries for financial reasons, so the kids have less access to books.”


In addition to its book bank, New Haven Reads also offers a one-on-one tutoring program, which trains volunteers and matches them with a student with the intention of creating a long-lasting partnership. The program, which serves about 600 children per week, relies on the support of its roughly 400 volunteer tutors, many of them Yale affiliated—students and faculty alike. “For most of the children who come to us, all they need is a little extra individualized help,” Levinsohn says. “A lot of it is confidence for these kids. They feel that they’re stupid if they can’t read, and it’s so far from the truth. To see them grow and become more confident, it’s amazing.”


Despite the squeeze of the pandemic, New Haven Reads only intends to expand its array of services. In the works is an upcoming program intended to serve recent immigrants through a partnership with Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services. And volunteers are always welcome.


“It’s the community at its best,” says Levinsohn. “It’s people from all walks of life coming together to support our city’s greatest asset—our kids.”


Writer’s reflection:

As a lover of language and a passionate learner, it’s difficult for me to fathom what it must be like to navigate everyday life, never mind education or work, without the ability to read. Yet for millions of Americans—our community members, friends, maybe even our own family—that is their reality. I want to extend my sincerest thanks to Kirsten Levinsohn for sharing her knowledge with me, and encourage readers to consider volunteering or donating to New Haven Reads and other organizations doing important work to tackle this issue.