"We are creating a new generation of illiterates." With those words, Robert Barnes, an official of the U.S. Department of Education, last week released a chilling analysis of a basic literacy test given by the Bureau of the Census to 3,400 Americans age 20 and over. Thirteen percent flunked the test, able to answer only 20 or fewer of the 26 multiple-choice questions. (Sample: Don't allow your medical identification card to a) be used b) have destroy c) go lose d) get expired by any other person.) "It was a pretty simple test," notes Barnes dryly.
Atop the dismal failure rate, an additional 20% of those originally offered the test refused to take it, most for fear of revealing their illiteracy. From these results, Barnes projects that 17 million to 21 million adults in the U.S. cannot read. And this is only some of the bad news. The figures refute the impression, based on a 1979 Census Bureau study, that only one-half of 1% of Americans over 14 are illiterate. This survey assumed that anyone who had finished the fifth grade could read, and fostered the notion that most illiterates are elderly rural people who never got that far in school. The new study shows that the majority of nonreaders are under 50 (see chart) and many have attended high school. Particularly troubling is a 22% illiteracy rate among blacks, many of whom were moved through school by automatic-promotion policies but learned little on the way. Observes Barnes: "Too many blacks [who failed the test] were passed along from year to year at school without academic gain."
Perhaps most disturbing of all, the new test measured only bedrock inability to read, with no attempt to establish the number of U.S. adults who, although technically literate, cannot read well enough to function as successful citizens. Such a measure of functional illiteracy, say Barnes and other experts, would be even more disheartening. Indeed, a study published by the University of Texas in 1975 suggested that one in five Americans cannot read well enough to perform the simplest tasks. Of 15,000 tested, 20% could not write a check without an error so serious that a bank could not cash it; 22% were unable to address an envelope well enough to ensure postal delivery; 40% could not figure correct change from a store purchase; and more than half had at least some trouble with reading or writing. "We're talking about half the U.S. population being in a borderline or worse situation," says Texas Researcher Jim Cates, who directed the study. "There is no threat to the U.S. greater than that."
Cates, Barnes and other educators around the country agree that the American school system is partly to blame. In many elementary schools, reading time is devoted to "See Jane run" readers and dull word-drill workbooks. Another pedagogical problem: children frequently are force-fed new words by the "look and say" method, which requires recognition of whole words, rather than the more flexible and effective technique of phonics, or sounding out words, phoneme by phoneme. The consequence, as Nebraska's Democratic Senator Edward Zorinsky argued at congressional literacy hearings last fall, is that many children "are not learning to read and therefore not learning much of anything."