America's Dirty Little Secret

Posted by on January 5, 2012 in blog | 0 comments

Chances are very good that you have not heard about one of America's best-hidden, dirty, little secrets — widespread functional illiteracy and the truancy, juvenile delinquency, crime, poverty, and many other problems it causes. Almost every American can read at least a few simple words they learned in the first three grades in school. If that is all  they can read, however, they do not like to read and almost never try to do so. Statistics show that almost half of U.S. adults never  read another entire book after leaving school. Much more importantly, however, they cannot read well enough to get by as well as they should in our increasingly complex society and to hold an above-poverty-level-wage job. There are several definitions of functional illiteracy, but the inability to hold a good job is the most accurate indicator of illiteracy because most employers have a strong financial interest in being accurate about how well their employees can read.

All other definitions of functional illiteracy can be manipulated by the researchers — either inadvertently or on purpose. The results of the study can be influenced by the choice of the interviewees, the location from which interviewees are drawn, the time periods covered by the study, the significant details of the testing, and the assumptions made in interpreting the data — and some of the assumptions made may very well seem to be "obvious," rather than an attempt to influence the results. Researchers who are associated in any way with the government or education may want the results to show the literacy rate to be higher than it actually is in order to avoid being thrown out of office by an angry electorate demanding that they solve a problem they do not know how to solve. In most cases our leaders mistakenly believe that a massive effort — in which they are unwilling to risk failure by publicizing or attempting — would be needed to significantly improve the literacy rate.

With the present, shocking extent of illiteracy, solving the problem of illiteracy in the U.S. is now more crucial than ever. When I tell you how bad it is, you may find it hard to believe, so I need to start by giving you the reasons why you probably didn't know.

Why We Do Not Know the Seriousness of Illiteracy

First, this blog is discussing functional illiteracy. Very few Americans cannot read at all, but if they read so poorly that they cannot get by in our society as well as they should, their reading ability is of practically no value.

Second, illiterates are almost always embarrassed about their inability to read well and have developed numerous coping methods for getting by in life while hiding their illiteracy. Community leaders in areas with a large number of illiterates do not want that fact publicized. They fear that it will give people they perceive as their "enemies" — racists and class-conscious persons — ammunition against them. Chances are that many of your acquaintances — without your knowledge — are functionally illiterate.

Third, there is a certain amount of natural separation of readers and non-readers. Because of lower incomes for families where one or both adults are illiterate, they live in lower cost homes, which are separated from more expensive homes by zoning laws. Also, there is a certain amount of separation in the workplace according to job functions and in leisure activities according to reading abilities.

Fourth, most low-income families have more than one employed adult. If one of the employed adults in the family is literate, that adult can pull the family above the poverty threshold. If neither adult in the family is literate, the family is very likely to be in poverty.

Fifth, most low-income families receive financial assistance from government agencies, friends, charities, and relatives in other families.

Sixth, there are four reasons why you may not know information about literacy from media reports: (1) the results of a literacy study may not have appeared in the media, (2) you may not have seen the media reports about the literacy rate, (3) you saw media reports and didn't believe them or forgot them, or (4) you saw reports on literacy rate that inaccurately minimized the seriousness of the problem. The reports on the most statistically accurate and comprehensive study of U.S. adult illiteracy ever commissioned by the U.S. government, Adult Literacy in America, definitely downplayed the seriousness of the problem of functional illiteracy. Most reporters have time pressures to get their story into print before someone else reports it and it is no longer "news." As a result, in a 200 page report, such as the Adult Literacy in America report, reporters may have read only the "Executive Summary." Part of the reason the report was downplayed is that journalists spend most of their time in school studying journalism rather than math. Getting the full impact of the report required a little mathmatical knowledge. Many educators, politicians, and members of the media have a short-term interest in disbelieving statistics that show the teaching of reading to be inadequate.

Why Must We Be Concerned About Illiteracy?

There are four very good reasons why we must be concerned about illiteracy.

(1) The extent of English functional illiteracy is undoubtedly much worse than your realize. A careful analysis of the Adult Literacy in America report proves that 48.7% of U.S. adults cannot read and write well enough to hold an above-poverty-level-wage job. See http://nces.ed.gov/pubs93/93275.pdf. This was a five-year, $14 million study involving lengthy interviews of 26,049 adults. The interviewees were statistically balanced for age, gender, ethnicity, and location to be representative of the entire U.S. population. The study statistically balanced urban, suburban, and rural data from twelve states across the U.S. and included 1100 prisoners from 80 prisons. These results are verified in a 2006 report, http://nces.ed.gov/NAAL/PDF/2006470.PDF which was a study using 19,714 interviewees by the same group of researchers as the Adult Literacy in America report .

(2) The effect of illiteracy on illiterates is undoubtedly much worse than you realize — illiterates must constantly endure at least 34 different types of serious physical, mental, emotional, medical, and financial problems that we would consider a crisis if we had to endure them. Many simple tasks that we perform every day are beyond the ability of most functional illiterates. A shocking 31.2% of functional illiterates are in poverty and their poverty is more than twice as likely to be a result of illiteracy as for all other causes combined. Multiplying 31.2% by 48.7% shows that 15.2% of all U.S. adults are in poverty, which is in close agreement with poverty rates reported from other sources. See the second chapter of Let's End Our Literacy Crisis, Revised Edition or Second Revision for the calculations of literacy rates and poverty rates.

(3) The cost of illiteracy — for both reader and non-reader — is undoubtedly much higher than you realize: (a) for government programs that illiterates use, (b) for truancy, juvenile delinquency, and crime directly attributable to illiteracy, and (c) for consumer goods due to the higher cost of recruiting and training of new employees because of functionally illiterate job applicants, and due to the expense of preventing and correcting the mistakes and inabilities of functionally illiterate employees. The average cost each year for every U.S. adult — reader and non-reader both — was calculated in 2004 to be $5,186. The cost in 2012 is undoubtedly much more.

(4) Due to our society and our trade and other relations with other nations becoming much more complex, literacy levels that were acceptable in the past are no longer acceptable. Today in the U.S., unlike in past years, there are very few manual labor jobs available. Janitors have been laid off because of being unable to read an after-hours note from their boss with special clean-up instructions. People have become seriously injured or died as a result of being unable to read instructions on medicine bottles. Tenants have been evicted from hard-to-find low-income housing when the apartment owner (who wants to remodel and raise the rent to an amount the owner knows the tenants cannot afford) falsely tells them that their crying baby disturbs other tenants and is not allowed by the rental contract they signed, knowing that they are unable read the rental contract. Children with serious medical problems are in danger if their parents get lost and cannot get quickly to the hospital because they cannot read the road signs. Insurance policy holders do not receive the coverage they are due because they cannot read the policy and they do not remember (or more likely: the salesman did not carefully explain) their benefits. Illiterates often do not know about events important to them because they cannot read the newspaper or posters about events not covered by radio or television. Illiterate voters cannot make an informed vote when all they know about a candidate is the 30-second or one-minute advertisements on radio and television. Illiterates often will not stray very far from their home for fear of getting lost because they cannot read road signs and maps. These and hundreds of similar "horror stories" occur around us every day. American jobs are sent overseas, not only to find cheaper labor costs but also because many non-English-speaking workers in other nations have a higher literacy rate and are better educated for the type of work the employer needs — foreign products are becoming more readily available in the U.S. for similar reasons.

Why is the Illiteracy Rate So High?

Many people blame the illiterate for his or her illiteracy. We often think that if someone does not learn to read it is because they are not trying hard enough or because they are not smart enough. Is that really true? No, but teachers, politicians, and the media often want that to be true because they do not know what to do about the problem.

Most of us learn to read as children and have long since forgotten the difficulty we had. Our eyes skip easily over a multitude of traps for beginning readers. Listen to what Sir James Pitman says about learning to read, on p. 38 of his book Alphabets and Reading, "[T]he child is expected to take on a task that is formidable for all and for some impossible: to analyze what is scarcely analyzable, to conjure abstractions and generalizations from a printed medium whose associations are in fact neither invariable nor consistent and thus doubly irrational." What this means is that only certain students — about half of them — learn to read in school. If they make it to adulthood without learning to read, Laubach Literacy International found that all but the most severely mentally handicapped can learn to read, but it takes about a year of one-on-one tutor training. Statistics show that less than one percent of non-reading adults ever take enough tutor training to become literate after leaving school (see Harman and Hunter, Adult Literacy in the United States, p. 37).

How inconsistent and irrational is English spelling? Professor Julius Nyikos of Washington and Jefferson College did an extensive study of the way the phonemes — the smallest sound used to distinguish between syllables or words in a language or dialect — are spelled in six desk-size dictionaries (see Julius Nyikos, The Fourteenth LACUS [Linguistic Association of Canada and the United States] Forum 1987, pp. 146-163). He found that there are 1,768 ways of spelling forty phonemes in English! We only need forty ways of spelling forty phonemes — one each. There are no spelling rules in English that do not have an exception. Some of the exceptions have exceptions! A computer programmed with 203 English spelling rules was able to correctly spell only 49% of a list of 17,000 common words.

English is not strictly an alphabetic language. English words are logograms like Chinese written material. A certain combination of letters in a certain order represents an entire English word in the same way that a certain combinations of strokes in a certain position represent a word or part of a word in Chinese. As a result, every word in a person's reading vocabulary must be learned one-at-a-time by rote memory or by repeated use. Most literate people have a reading vocabulary of between 20,000 and 70,000 words. Well educated people have reading vocabularies of more than 70,000 words. (And regardless of how well educated a person may be, if he or she must spell an English word they have not seen for a few years, they may have to consult a dictionary to find the "correct" spelling. This never happens in most alphabetic languages — if you know how to pronounce the word, you know how to spell it.)

It is quite obviously much easier to learn the spelling of 38 phonemes (the minimum needed to learn to read English) and how to blend them into words than it is to learn the spelling of 20,000 or more words. Instead of learning to read in less than three months, as in consistent alphabetic languages, it takes most beginning students in traditional English spelling at least two years to learn enough words to enable them to read well enough to understand what they read so that they can add new words to their vocabulary without being totally confused.

Numerous scholars have emphasized the importance of logic in learning. Learning things that are illogical, such as English spelling, is much more difficult. For example, Edward Rondthaler and Edward Lias, in their book, Dictionary of simplified American Spellling state, "Systematic spelling takes full advantage of a well documented educational principle: logic stimulates thinking, thinking encourages learning, learning is facilitated when what is being learned 'makes sense.' A spelling that makes sense would open the door to literacy for more people, young and old, than all our remedial efforts put together. It would go a long way toward rescuing those who if not rescued will greatly magnify our social problems and undermine our democratic structure."

There is a familiar saying, "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it." We have not learned from almost a century of efforts to overcome the difficulties of English spelling instead of correcting it. How much more time are you willing to wait as we continue to avoid the one, inevitable solution, if we ever really want to solve the problem?

What Is the Obvious Solution to the Problem?

Dr. Frank Charles Laubach, founder of Laubach Literacy International, went all around the world teaching adult illiterates to read in more than 300 languages. In fact, he invented spelling systems for more than 220 languages. He found that in about 95% of the languages he could teach students to read fluently in from one to twenty days. In some of the simpler languages, such as one or more dialects of the Philippine language, he could teach them to read in one hour! (see Laubach, Forty Years With the Silent Billion, p. 103) In about 98% of the languages he could teach beginning readers to read fluently in less than three months (see Sanford S. Silverman, Spelling For the 21st Century, p. v). This was all possible because these languages were consistent and logical — almost every time you see a certain letter or letter combination it represented the same phoneme.

Dr. Laubach stated on page 77 of his book, Forty Years With the Silent Billion, "If we spelled English phonetically, American children could be taught to read in a week." Some of the better students could learn to read in a week, but every student except the most severely mentally handicapped could certainly learn to read in less than three months. The grammar and syntax of English is neither the easiest nor the most difficult. It is, however, easier than many of the European languages, almost all of which can be learned in less than three months. The best illustration of the truth of that statement is Dr. Rudolph Flesch's explanation, in his book Why Johnny Still Can't Read, pp. 167-168, that Russian schoolchildren are taught to read 46 of the 130 national languages of Russian — in first grade! There is no reading instruction, as such, after first grade.

English is now spoken by more than 1.3 billion people around the world (see Gwynne Dyer, "English Poses Little Threat to Many Other Languages," The Salt Lake Tribune, Oct 16, 1997, p. A 11). It is spoken by more people than the dialect of any other language. It is used more than any other language to speak with people who do not know the speakers' native language. It is estimated, however, that about 600 million people around the world who speak English cannot read English very well and are functionally illiterate in English. There are more than 93 million functional illiterates in the U.S. alone. If we spelled our words the way they sound, the way most of the world does, hundreds of millions of people could easily learn to read English in less than three months.

What are the Benefits of Ending Illiteracy For Those of Us Who Can Read?

Four benefits are listed here. If you think about it, you can probably think of many others.

First, you will benefit emotionally if you are concerned that your loved ones are, or will become, functionally illiterate.

Second, you will benefit financially because illiteracy is now costing every U.S. adult at least $5186 per year as a result of (1) taxes for government programs that illiterates use and for truancy, juvenile delinquency, and crime directly related to illiteracy, and (2) higher prices for consumer goods due to illiterates in the workplace.

Third, since illiteracy affects all businesses to some extent, some of them seriously, you will benefit if your employer's business improves or if other businesses in which you invest time or money improve when illiteracy is ended.

Fourth, you will benefit by ending illiteracy if our nation improves the trade balance, national relationships, and our national employment by improving written communication between nations.

Why Is Spelling Reform the Best Solution to Illiteracy?

When Dr. Samuel Johnson issued his well-received dictionary in 1755, he made the linguistic mistake of freezing the spelling of words instead of freezing the spelling of the phonemes, as an alphabetic language is logically supposed to do. The spelling of each of the words was in almost every case the way the word was spelled in one of the eight languages which contributed words to English prior to 1755. Coming from Celtic, Norse, Icelandic, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, German, Danish, and French, they obviously had different spellings for many of the phonemes. As you may know, the pronunciation of many words changes with time, so what was bad in 1755 is even worse today. Furthermore, as Henry Hitchings explains in his book, The Secret Life of Words, since 1755 we have "borrowed" words — and usually their spelling — from about 350 other languages.

As stated before, the only way to learn to read English is to memorize or learn by repeated use every word in our reading vocabulary, one-at-a-time. In simpler times, namely before the 1920s, that is exactly what happened. Since that time we have developed dozens of pleasurable activities which divert students from the time needed to learn the spelling. Music on radios, CDs, iPods, and in rock concerts; movies on TV and DVD players; the internet; video games; and new athletic and extra-curricular school activities all take time away from the boring memorization of English words. There are also many new negative influences to distract students, such as new gang activities, new drugs, increased bullying in some schools, and more homes broken by divorce due to loosened divorce laws in the twentieth century.

Use of the whole-word method of teaching began in the 1920s partly in hopes of avoiding the drudgery for both the student and the teacher of learning the spelling of the words, one-at-a-time. Although there have been numerous attempts at improving the teaching of reading in the last eighty years — particularly since the April 1983 "Nation At Risk" report — all of these efforts have been aimed at overcoming the difficulties of English spelling through better textbooks, better teaching methods, better teacher training, and better student motivation methods instead of making the spelling logical and consistent.

In other words, for the last eighty years we have been fighting the symptoms of the problem — the difficulty of learning the spelling of the words — rather than solving the problem by making the spelling simple, consistent, and logical. This is similar to taking aspirin, decongestants, and cough medicine for the symptoms of pneumonia rather than taking penicillin to cure it.

Consider these facts about spelling reform:

First, dozens of scholars for the last 250 years or more have recommended spelling reform.

Second, thirty-three nations, both smaller and larger than the U.S., both advanced and developing nations, have simplified their spelling.

Third, a simpler spelling system has been proven effective by Dr. Laubach's work in more than 300 alphabetic languages. Nowhere in any of Dr. Laubach's books did he mention any students who did not learn to read, and they learned in less than three months in 98% or more of the languages. Most of the 51.3% of U.S. adults who learned to read (that is 100 minus 48.7% functionally illiterate) required at least two years to learn.

Fourth, when you saw that I was promoting spelling reform, you may have thought of reasons why it will not work, but several distinguished scholars have thoroughly debunked all reasonable objections to spelling reform.

Fifth, the need for a higher literacy rate is greater than ever in our increasingly complex world. There are very few jobs available that do not require literacy.

But here is the kicker: Sixth, comprehensive spelling reform has never been tried in English!

The Solution to Functional Illiteracy

My company, Literacy Research Associates, Inc., a non-profit educational corporation, in cooperation with Gary Sprunk's company, NuEnglish, Inc., a non-profit educational corporation and a 509(a)(2) public charity, has discovered and perfected a simple, consistent, and logical spelling system such as Dr. Laubach recommended. It is a spelling system called NuEnglish. Gary Sprunk has a Masters Degree in English Lingusitics and a genius mentality. He read the original version of my book, Let's End Our Literacy Crisis, in 2005 and decided on his own (I neither requested or even suggested it) to form a company to promote my spelling system. He has developed a computer program called Respeller (a program on our home page, http://nuenglish.org which is free for everyone to use) which can quickly change up to 25 pages at a time of traditional spelling to NuEnglish, our proposed spelling system. Respeller has an English word database of more than 557,000 words. It will convert over 99.9% of anything fed into it and will flag any words not converted for manual conversion. Gary hired a web designer who produced three websites about our humanitarian project.

The original version of my book, published in 2005, was one of six finalists out of 49 entrants in the Education/Academics category of the USA.BookNews.com Best Book Award competition with 1000 to 2000 total entrants and one out of 8 finalists in the Education category of the Foreword Magazine Book-of-the-Year Award competition with 1540 total entrants. Dr. Michael Shaughnessy, professor of Special Education at Eastern New Mexico University, sent me an email after reading my book which said, "I have read the book, from the local public library and I agree with you 100 percent."

The most important part of marketing a book is publicity! People have to know about a book before they will buy it. The American public is the most generous and compassionate group of people on earth. They have taken part in several grass-roots campaigns in the last couple of centuries to improve our nation. I am convinced that if enough people carefully, honestly read my book and take the action the book recommends, we can enable hundreds of millions of people around the world to lift themselves out of the poverty that their lack of education dooms them to. If you will use your influence to help further our humanitarian project, you can have the satisfaction of knowing you helped the grass-roots movement to get started. If you personally know a celebrity or any person with a great amount of influence, informing them of our humanitarian project will be a help beyond measure.

I have also developed a website which details many of the facts about our humanitarian project at http://LearnToReadNow.org (click here). Page 8 on that website lists ten desirable characteristics of NuEnglish. I have been researching proposed spelling systems for 25 years (I've seen nearly every proposed system available to the public since the 1800s) and have never a seen a proposed system with more than six or seven of these desirable characteristics. From the standpoint of easy learning for beginning readers, I have only found two proposed systems that have less than two ways of spelling a phoneme or two systems in which a phoneme can be pronounced in two ways or less. NuEnglish has a perfect one-to-one phoneme-to-grapheme correspondence (a grapheme is a letter or letters used to represent a phoneme). To see the characteristics of NuEnglish click here. It is so easy that present readers can learn the system in less than ten minutes (see http://LearnToReadNow.org/10.htm (click here). Although you may initially think this is an extravagant claim, you are challenged to go to our website and prove it to yourself.

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