Falling Literacy Levels are Alarming

I was reading an article over on Yahoo! News this morning (linked from The Millions) that was discussing the fact that SAT scores for reading have fallen to their lowest levels ever—489 points. Part of this they’re attributing to the fact that more students are taking the test who may not have grown up in homes where English was the primary language, but part of it is likely due to the fact that we’re now emphasizing math and science over reading and writing in schools.

This is really alarming to me. Literacy, according to some studies, is the best indicator of future success we have. And literacy does not just mean knowing basic reading and writing skills. There’s this thing called “functional literacy” that varies based on the current conditions. Basically, it means that you have the necessary reading comprehension and writing skills to understand what you need to in a given situation. For some people, the level of functional literacy they require is quite low, and for others it’s quite high. Writers fall toward the high end of the scale, because obviously we need to be able to use language in a way that people who don’t write for anything other than necessity don’t need. (Unfortunately, I’ve known way too many writers whose functional literary skills are lacking, to say the least, but I’m not going to get into that here.)

We’ve spent the past few years in the United States, and elsewhere in the world I’m sure, pushing math, science, and technology education over all else. And these things are important, for sure, especially the technology education. Without this, it’s pretty hard to compete in our connected, global culture.

The big issue here is that we’ve decided that for many students, knowing how to do anything more than read and fill out a job application isn’t necessary. For still others, anything more than a simple business memo, instruction manual, or other technical reading material, is overkill. We’ve decided that kids don’t need to have excellent reading comprehension and communications skills because they’ll be in jobs where technology is key. Where science is key. Where math is key.

I see one big problem with this: the quickest way to learn something new, is to read about it. Sure, you can watch videos to learn practical skills. But learning concepts, theories, and the reasoning behind those practical skills is best done through reading (or listening to podcasts or lectures, though I would argue that those same reading comprehension skills are necessary there).

I scored a 1200 on my SATs (back when there were only two parts: language and math, when it was still on a 1600-point scale). 660 in language and 540 in math. This was without studying and staying out too late the night before. I only took them once, because I didn’t have time to take them again (and I was satisfied with my 1200). I attribute some of my language score to the fact that I’d had two years of Latin, and some to the fact that I was a voracious reader. (I attribute my low math score to the fact that I’d taken algebra 2 on my own, without the benefit of a teacher, in order to graduate another year early—I’d already skipped 6th grade.)

But here’s the thing: I’ve since studied physics (including quantum mechanics), a little chemistry, and plenty of math. I’ve done it all on my own. I read books, articles, and research papers. I understand the things I’m reading, because even if I don’t know exactly what something means, I have the ability to look it up and figure it out. I’ve taught myself everything I know about technology, too. Again, it’s by reading and reading and then reading some more. My math, science, and technology skills can be directly attributed to my reading skills.

The best part about having a high level of literacy is that I also can see the holes in logic presented by some. I can question what they’re telling me. I can look for other sources and figure out my own theories. I can argue my point with people who have substantially more formal education than I have, and can find sources, or simply use logic to back up my points.

We’re robbing the current generation of kids in school of these abilities. By telling them that math and science are their keys to success, rather than literacy and critical thinking skills, we’re all but guaranteeing that they won’t be as successful as they could be. We’re limiting their ability to learn anything on their own. We’re limiting their ability to figure things out for themselves because they lack not only critical thinking skills, but the ability to comprehend what they read or what they listen to. If someone doesn’t hold their hand through a process, they won’t get it.

If we hope to compete in a global marketplace and keep up in a global culture, where India has more honor-level students than we have students, we need to teach kids to learn. We can’t teach them what they need to know, because what they need to know changes on an almost daily basis. But we can teach them to teach themselves. We can give them the literacy skills they need to find things out on their own, to find the information they need, and to look critically at what they’re reading and hearing.

The point here is that we need to stop focusing on teaching kids facts, and start teaching them how to learn for themselves. Science, math, and technology education is vital, but it can’t come at the expense of literacy education. That includes both reading and writing skills. We need to place more emphasis on teaching our kids how to learn and less emphasis on making them memorize facts that they’ll never use again. I don’t have the answers on how to do that, other than to give kids more say in how their education is carried out, so that they actually want to learn. Give them a choice of what to read, of what to write, from a young age, so that they never get to the point where they say, “I hate reading.”

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2 thoughts on “Falling Literacy Levels are Alarming

  1. Hi! thanks for the nice posting!

    I would like to call your attention to the fact that in nowdays the number of people who reads online is been enormously increasing. I am major in math. So I am analytical by nature, science is my favorite tool. But in other hand, based on my words in here, the way I express myself you can easily figure out that I am from a foreign country where English is not my first language. I admit that I am not a great book reader but I should confess that I devour the online information and I should confess (without bragging myself) that my critical capacity reading is normally above average. So are you aware that what is maybe happening now is a shift on the process which people is using to read and learn?
    I learned the basic English 5 years ago just using the vast online information and from there other skills started been piled on my brain. But all of it as product of a Scientific, mathematical brain. I should be completing my Masters in Theology next semester. So can you see the benefit of it? I believe the literacy was really necessary, but the order which it happened would not be necessarily as the same as the conventional methods.
    Do you think these students which literacy level are been so low now, have the same low results in other subjects like computers, science, math or even a simple arts class? I don’t think so. I believe they have achieved success in other areas as well. What do you think?

    • But it sounds like you are, in fact, very literate. “Literate” does not have to just mean reading books. It means reading anything, anywhere, and having the ability to break it down and understand it, and to make connections between the things you read.

      I read much more online than anywhere else, and most of what I’ve learned has been found online. Literacy can be developed in any medium. The important thing is reading comprehension and communication skills, education in both of which are lacking in American schools.

      And the point is that without a high level of literacy, you’re limited in what you can learn. You can only learn practical skills that other people teach you, rather than being able to figure things out on your own, or teach yourself. And if you’re reading things online to teach yourself, then that’s a result of your functional literacy, rather than your scientific skills (though your scientific skills undoubtedly contribute to your overall understanding of concepts you read).

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