According to a study conducted in late April by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy, 32 million adults in the U.S. can’t read. That’s 14 percent of the population with 21 percent of adults in the U.S. reading below a fifth-grade level.
Children whose parents have low literacy levels have a 72 percent chance of being at the lowest reading levels themselves. These children are more likely to get poor grades, have high absentee rates, often display behavioral problems, repeat grades in school and/or drop out. In fact, 75 percent of state prison inmates did not complete high school or are classified as low literate.
The current literacy rate isn’t any better than it was 10 years ago and we know that vocabulary knowledge is the single most important factor in predicting academic and reading success. Yes, words matter!
Without knowing words, children cannot understand what they are hearing or reading. The extent of children’s oral language knowledge is highly correlated with reading proficiency. As children read more difficult texts encountered in school, such as chapter books and text books, they will need vocabulary instruction to learn the meanings of words that are not yet a part of their oral vocabulary. The very students who are in the greatest need of vocabulary acquisition tend to be the same students who read poorly, early on.
Therefore, because reading is so difficult for them, struggling readers fail to engage in the amount of reading necessary to learn more vocabulary and the word gap widens. Research tells us that a child who reads only five minutes a day encounters 282,000 words a year, while the child that reads 20 minutes a day encounters 1,800,000 words a year. That is a huge difference in words exposed to from just the mere act of reading.
This word gap will continue to widen as the child moves into school going from grade to grade, falling further behind as the demands for advanced text calls for knowing “lots” of words.
Words are essential in building thought connections in the brain. Therefore, the more language a child experiences, through conversations and books, the more socially and educationally advantaged they become. Yes, words matter, and Dr. Seuss had it right, “The more you read, the more you know, the more you know, the further you will go.”
The United States is facing a literacy crisis. Yes, a crisis. It isn’t new, but its impact upon our kids, our economy and our society are far-reaching and continuing to expand.
I hope that, in the future, we will be able to explore some ways that we as parents, teachers and community members can work through simple measures to help “fix” this word gap and ensure that literacy is a focal point in our community.