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The Consequences of Reading Failure

Sebastian Wren, Ph.D.

It is a common misconception that we used to do a better job of teaching children to read in this country.  In fact, reading scores have not changed significantly in the past 35 years (according to information from the National Center for Education Statistics), and studies suggest that reading performance in the U.S. has not changed since before World War II. (See N is for NAEP)

However, while literacy achievement has stayed the same for 40+ years, what has changed is the importance of developing advanced literacy skills.  Adams (1991, p. 26) provides a compelling argument for the absolutely crucial and essential need that people will have for literacy in the future, and most would argue that proficient reading skills already nearly essential for a reasonable quality of life in this country.

Some have argued, however, that the illiteracy problem in this country has been grossly overstated.  Jeff McQuillan, for example, in his book, "The Literacy Crisis: False Claims, Real Solutions" argues that the statistics are misleading, and that we have very little to worry about when it comes to literacy.

So what is the state of reading education in this country?  Consider these statistics and decide for yourself:

One in five American adults is functionally illiterate (Larrick, 1987), but 40% of minority youth is functionally illiterate (Orton Dyslexia Society).  Over 40 million Americans over the age of 16 have significant literacy disabilities (National Adult Literacy Survey, 1991).

The U.S. Department of Education estimates that at least ten million children have difficulty learning to read. 10 to 15 percent of those children eventually drop out of high school, and only 2 percent complete a four-year program of college.

According to the Orton Dyslexia Society, "illiterate" is a term that can be used to describe 75% of unemployed workers, 85% of juveniles who appear in court, and 60% of prison inmates.  Literacy is very strongly related to criminality and recidivism, access to health care, employment, financial success, and even life-span.

Of the people who had to take a basic reading competency exam for a entry-level employment at New York Telephone, 84% failed and were consequently denied employment (Perry, 1988).

While about 40% of students (especially in the lower grades) perform at the "below basic" level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 5% of students fall in the "advanced" category.

Approximately 50% of high school graduates do not have the reading skills they need to be successful in college (Arenson, 2005). 
Students who have difficulty with reading have difficulty with all academic subjects and are more likely to fail as students (Allington, 1994; Kamil, 2003).  
In the United States, 3,000 students drop out of school every day (Joftus, 2003).

Half of the special education population is comprised of children who did not learn to read, and 35% of children in special education programs drop out of high-school. (National Institute of child Health and Human Development, 1996)

According to U.S. Department of Labor statistics, half of high-school dropouts are unemployed at any given time, but less than 3% of college graduates are unemployed.

43% of people with the lowest literacy skills live below the poverty line (National Institute for Literacy).  Welfare recipients aged 17 to 21 read, on average, at the sixth grade level.  Almost half of the adults receiving welfare support do not have a GED or high school diploma.

Contrary to what people like McQuillan have argued, there is indeed a very real problem with illiteracy in this country, and it is getting worse.  Not so much because scores are going down (although recent NAEP trends suggest that scores are in fact going down for certain minority and high-poverty populations), but because the need for literacy skills is greater than ever before.

For more depressing facts about students and reading, check out this fact sheet published by Scholastic.


Adams, M.J. (1991).  Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print.  MIT Press.  Cambridge.

Allington, R. (1994). The schools we have. The schools we need. The Reading Teacher, 48(1), 14–29.

Arenson, K.W. (2005, August 31). SAT math scores at record high, but those on the verbal exam are stagnant. The New York Times, p. 16.

Joftus, S. (2002). Every child a graduate: A framework for an excellent education for all middle and high school students. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.

Kamil, M.L. (2003). Adolescents and literacy: Reading for the 21st century. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education. Available at: http://www.all4ed.org/publications/AdolescentsAndLiteracy.pdf

Larrick, N. (1987).  Illiteracy starts too soon.  Phi Delta Kappan, 69, 184-189

Perry, N.J. (1988).  Saving the schools: How business can help.  Fortune, November 7, 42-56.

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Last Updated 8-7-03