Understanding the Importance of Literacy

Experts in both education and economics have attempted to quantify the importance of literacy. The ability to read, speak and write clearly is essential for success in almost every aspect of life. Completing job applications and participating in interviews, making lists, reading to children and keeping up with world events are only a few ways that we use these basic skills. It is almost impossible to agree on the value of literacy in dollars. However, most experts agree that illiteracy results in significant economic and social loss.

Early Learning

According to Reading is Fundamental, “The first three years of schooling are a critical time to learn the basic skills needed to tackle a more advanced curriculum.” A balanced literacy program includes early and rigorous instruction in reading, writing and speaking.

Unfortunately, many students, especially those living in poverty, come to school without essential language skills for timely literacy development. A preschooler whose family lives in poverty, whose parents work two jobs to make ends meet and who has little or no access to books has a lower chance of succeeding in reading and writing than one whose vocabulary benefits from daily conversation and frequent encounters with books.

Educational leaders and decision-makers understand the importance of literacy for consistent student progress. They know that schools must create the right environment and provide appropriate curriculum and programs for their youngest students to ensure reading and writing success for all students. Even children who come with deficient skills must receive every opportunity to catch up to grade-level expectations and keep pace with their peers.

Far-Reaching Effects of Illiteracy

The importance of literacy reaches beyond school success. Literacy development has a significant impact on issues of health and safety, crime, welfare and the education of future generations.

Issues of health, wellness and safety are at risk for adults who lack fundamental reading skills. Tasks as simple as purchasing appropriate over-the-counter medication and first aid supplies can suffer from an inability to accurately read a label. The same is true for food selection. It is difficult for a person with poor reading skills to make sense of ingredient lists and nutritional information. In addition, safety signs and warnings posted in public and industrial settings may be inaccessible to a hard-working but illiterate adult. In each of these situations, help may be readily available, but adults are often unwilling to admit an inability to read or write, hiding the truth and perpetuating the danger.

According to the World Literacy Foundation, “The link between illiteracy and crime is clear.” Several studies have reached the same conclusions: the illiteracy rate among men, women and juveniles inside prison is higher than outside, and when released, the chance that illiterate inmates will re-offend is very high. The importance of literacy cannot be overstated in the endeavor to relieve the overcrowded conditions of the prison system.

Lifelong Effects of Illiteracy

There is more at stake than the risk to health and incarceration. Students who do not progress adequately in reading and writing at grade level often drop out before finishing high school. Workers without a diploma are less likely to find jobs that pay a living wage. They are more likely to become trapped in the welfare system, caught in a cycle of unemployment and long-term dependence on society. According to the California Department of Social Services, the welfare program exists to “serve, aid, and protect needy and vulnerable children and adults in ways that strengthen and preserve families, encourage personal responsibility, and foster independence.” It does not have the infrastructure to support individuals or families for a lifetime.

The education of future generations is also dependent, in part, on timely literacy development of the current generation. Literate parents are generally more involved in their children’s education in several ways. First of all, they have the skills to support their students who struggle with homework. Secondly, they can effectively communicate with the teacher, both verbally and in writing. Finally, parents who are literate can stay up-to-date with school initiatives, goals and functions. School newsletters provide information to families that young children may not be able to accurately communicate. If parents cannot read these letters, they miss out on school community events and other important issues.

There is no doubt of the importance of literacy in a fast-paced and complex society. The economic benefit of learning to read, write and speak effectively in school cannot be overstated. Increasing illiteracy rates drive welfare and prison system costs up, but well-educated, literate high school graduates gain financial stability and independence and contribute to society. Some students find jobs right out of high school that lead to on-the-job training and life-sustaining careers. Other students who graduate from high school in good standing pursue post-secondary education and work in professional fields that not only pay well but also contribute to society.

Literacy and the Future

The truth is that success in literacy can map the future. The Literacy Project Foundation reports that in order “[t]o determine how many prison beds will be needed in future years, some states actually base part of their projection on how well current elementary students are performing on reading tests.” This means there are proven links between literacy development, student progress and the future of the community. Experienced teachers who earn a Master of Arts in Education, Literacy online can make a big difference. They can contribute to the success of students while they are in school, as well as their success later when they join society as well-prepared adults.

Learn more about the CSUSM online MA in Education, Literacy program.


Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development: Language development and literacy

Literacy Project Foundation: Statistics

World Literacy Foundation: The Economic & Social Cost of Illiteracy

California Department of Social Services

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