Judy Gilreath: The high cost of illiteracy

Judy Gilreath

My mother never learned how to swim as a child thus, as an adult she was afraid of water. Because of her fear, she enrolled each of her children in swimming lessons when we were very young. Three of her children finished swim class with flying colors and passed the required swim test the first time around. One of her children did not and repeated swim class so many times that she should have been able to teach the class.

That child was me and despite my best efforts, as an adult I still can't swim! Now, being an adult who cannot swim has not dramatically affected my life. Most people don't even know that if thrown into deep water I will sink like a lead blob. Unfortunately, there are some things best learned by children at a young age that will not only affect their lives, but can actually determine the type of lives they and their families will experience.

One of the most important of these is learning how to read. We often hear of the importance of children reading on grade level by third grade, but do we fully understand why this is so important? To most it may be just a statistic, but to the adult who cannot read, it can be a life sentence.

A child who cannot read by third grade may feel embarrassed and pretend that he or she is just not interested. He or she thinks that there is something wrong with him or her personally because the child's classmates can read. The child may make excuses and say he or she doesn't want to read. Often a non-reading child will get in trouble in order to divert attention away from his or her lack of reading skills. Self-confidence will suffer, and he or she may begin to fail other subjects.

Through third grade children are mainly learning to read; beginning with fourth grade students are reading to learn. If solid reading skills don't develop by third grade, the odds of a student dropping out of school go up dramatically.

According to a 2017 study by the U.S. Department of Education, 32 million adults in the U.S. can't read. This is approximately 14% of the adult population in the United States. Sadly, millions more Americans can't read and comprehend above a fifth-grade level. Despite all of the efforts aimed toward increasing the literacy rate, the same study reports that the current rate isn't any better than it was 10 years ago. If you are reading this article, you are one of the fortunate 86%.

Now on the surface, 86% being able to read doesn't sound so bad. It is beyond bad, however, when we consider the limitations that not being able to read puts on a person, as well as the economic impact to us all. In terms of lost productivity, some studies estimate that the population of non-readers costs the nation billions of dollars annually.

If you are one of the 14% who cannot read, it is devastating to you personally. Non-reading parents cannot read food labels on grocery shelves or a note from their child's teacher. They can't help their child with homework, or most importantly, they are unable to read to their child. Their illiteracy can affect their children's reading skills. They may be forced to take lower paying jobs and may struggle all of their lives trying to financially support a family.

Non-readers do not have a lower IQ than others who can read. They just have a temporary disability. If our community was stricken with an illness that left untreated could be debilitating to hundreds of our citizens, I dare say that we would seek help. We would want the disease cured. Illiteracy is a terrible disease affecting a huge number of American adults, many living in Whitfield County. However, there is a remedy. We must not be content with the adult illiteracy rate in our community.

If you are a member of a religious or civic organization and are looking for a good project, think about offering a reading class or tutors to work one-on-one with non-reading adults. Whitfield County always rises to help when there is a need. Many non-reading adults in our community have a need and are waiting for our help.

Judy Gilreath is superintendent of Whitfield County Schools.

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