[Assessment 1433] Where does the reading problem go?

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tsticht at znet.com tsticht at znet.com
Fri Sep 26 19:11:51 EDT 2008

September 26, 2008

Where does the reading problem go when children grow up?

Tom Sticht
International Consultant in Adult Education

Each year you can count on numerous reports and news articles being written
about reading education in the K-12 school system of the United States.
Without exception, these reports give the impression that we need to spend
billions of dollars more on teaching children to read earlier
(e.g.,universal preschool) and better.

But if America’s public schools aren’t doing a good job of teaching reading,
you wouldn’t know it when the children have grown up and are asked as adults
how well they read. Overwhelmingly, our nation’s adults think they read Well
or Very Well.

The 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) asked adults to rate
their own reading skills as they perceived them. In a report on the
Literacy of Older Adults in America, from the National Center for
Education Statistics in Washington, DC, November 1996, the authors
reported (p. 43) that adults aged 16 to 59 rated themselves as reading
Very Well-72%, Well-22% and Not Well/Not At All-7%. Overall, then, some
93% of adults in this age range rated themselves as reading Well or Very

When broken out by ethnic groups, ratings were

Whites: Very Well-77%, Well-21%, or Not Well/Not At All-3%.
Blacks: Very Well-67%, Well-27% and Not Well/Not At All-6%.
Hispanics: Very Well-46%, Well-22% and Not Well/Not At All-32%

In this analysis, only Hispanics reported a high percentage, 32 percent, or
5.3 million adults, who thought they could not read English Well or Very
Well, no doubt reflecting the large immigrant population in this category
with less education and poorer English language skills than U.S. born
adults. Among both Blacks and Whites, poor reading appears to be a
perceived problem for only 3 to 6 percent of these populations, about 4.5
million adults in the age range 16-59.

Interestingly, when the average proficiencies of Whites and
Blacks on the NALS Prose scale were compared, it was found that for
Whites who rated themselves as reading Very Well, their average Prose
proficiency was 308, well above average, whereas for Blacks rating
themselves as reading Very Well, their Prose average proficiency
was 259, well below average.

Perhaps when children grow up and get out of the pre-K-12 world they
adapt to the ambient literacy demands of a cultural niche that they find
possible to occupy. They find jobs they can qualify for, they get
information from sources they have access to and feel comfortable in
using, and as they slip ever more firmly into their literacy niche, they
feel more and more satisfaction with their literacy skills. Maybe this is
why so many U.S. adults think they read Well or Very Well, despite their
poor performance on literacy tests. This raises the possibility that if
they are using themselves as a standard, many adults are not able to judge
whether or not their children are learning to read Well or Very Well in
school and fail to take action on behalf of failing children.

Today, our nation’s Adult Education and Literacy System remains
marginalized, operating with an average of $820 per enrollee, including
both federal and state funds. This is less than 10 percent of what we spend
per child in the K-12 system. Strangely, though federal and state
governments have provided tens of billions of dollars in mostly failed
attempts to improve the reading skills of children, once the children grow
up their reading problems seem to go away. I wonder why?

Thomas G. Sticht
tsticht at aznet.net