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National Editorials & Columns

The more you learn, the more you can learn

Literacy facts keeps us humble.

Nearly 20 percent of the world’s adult population remains illiterate. One billion adults are without basic reading and writing skills; 60 percent of the one billion are women who live and work in the developing countries. The highest percentage is found in Africa, though the largest number is in Asia. 

Children are less motivated for learning if their mothers are illiterate, and 130 million school-age children are without access to schools. Illiteracy passes from one generation to another. The illiterate are not stereotypic. They hold a job, have family responsibilities, personal life goals and values. In illiterate countries, they often have a rich heritage of oral traditions and values. Literacy enables us to retrain to a new job, so we don’t feel in a rut or because unemployment raises its ugly head.

These were world facts, but what about facts in our own country? We are the only educated country where the only language we know is our own. Some studies show that thousands of U.S. workers were so poor in reading and writing, simple math and the ability to speak English that they could not function effectively. (These workers were not the foreign born only.) Yet, today, the U.S. Department of Education estimates that 27 million adult Americans — one in every five — is functionally illiterate. They increase at two million per year. (Canada, Australia, France, and England face similar problems of functional illiteracy.)

Students who reported discussing their reading had higher average reading achievement. Across the three grades 51 to 64 percent of the students said that they were asked by their teachers to talk about what they read on a weekly basis or more often. Interestingly, in another report, most students said their parents either never or seldom discussed what they read with them. Few parents took the time to discuss in detail anything that their child read. Many often had no idea if they read or not.

We already accept that literacy is more than reading and writing; it is comprehending what we read and write, and it is being able to reason with what we read and write so that others can understand our message. Literacy is believing that we have a message to share. Literacy encourages positive self-esteem that enables us to succeed in our goals.

Literacy requires word knowledge, thinking skills, writing skills and reasoning. It is no longer valid just to write our name. We must be able to analyze, evaluate, extend ideas and use systematic reasoning. Literacy, like any skill, takes work to continue to improve it. It is coping with a modern world and coming up on top. Literacy is not a one-time goal; it is a lifetime goal. In order to be literate, we must practice literate activities. If we once stop practicing, we become under-literate. If we are honest with ourselves, I wonder how many of us are “under-literate.”

We need literacy in all aspects of life.  “Functional literacy” allows us to order from a menu: choose healthy foods; take medicine correctly; learn about health care solutions; understand safety issues; be a responsible citizen (to vote, to read and compare platforms and what candidates believe, not just take their word for it); read directional signs, find a telephone number; check and be sure our paycheck stub is correct; read instructions; etc.  To enjoy literacy we need to go beyond functional literacy in order to read books, magazines, newspapers, pamphlets, etc. for information and pleasure.

What else does literacy do for us? It helps rid us of prejudice. Literacy breeds literacy as illiteracy breeds illiteracy. Literacy leads to a better life because the more you know, the more you can know. The more you learn, the more you can learn. 

I recently read a book recommended by a grandchild that impressed me with the cruelty of people and their lack of knowledge of what goes on inside the mind of people whose bodies don’t function well.  The book is “Out of My Mind” by Sharon M. Draper. Melody Brooks has cerebral palsy.  She is very smart and few see her ability. Her parents do, the lady next door does, and an aide at school does.  She is trapped inside her broken body and finally in fifth grade equipped with a special computer she shows what is inside, but those around her betray her because it isn’t enough. They think because she needs special physical help, she couldn’t possibly be a person and they are willing to deny her the chance to compete in a quiz competition. No, some of them don’t do it purposely, but she is deeply hurt and betrayed just the same.  

I encourage anyone who doesn’t have an understanding of this disease to read this book and hopefully face any prejudice you have. 

Until next week …  Christine Pauley

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