10 Costs and Consequences of the Literacy Crisis

10 Costs and Consequences of the Literacy Crisis

Let’s get right to the point: Literacy—or the lack thereof—is a big issue in the United States. Those who lack basic literacy skills (not to mention more comprehensive reading, writing, and critical thinking capabilities) are too often left behind, compelled to either drop out of school or pass through with hopes and plans unfulfilled. Of course, the lack of adequate literacy skills is not just a problem for individuals; it is also a major concern for society as a whole. Take a look at the list below.

  1. Twenty-five percent of children in the U.S. reportedly grow up not knowing how to read.

  2. More than one-third of children entering kindergarten do not have the basic pre-literacy skills needed to learn how to read. As Laura M. Justice of the University of Virginia stated, “The current rate of reading problems among school children remains unacceptably high.” According to Justice, prevention is preferable to remediation in addressing early literacy gaps.

  3. Children who start behind are far more likely to stay behind in terms of their emerging literacy skills. This is especially true for low-income children, and particularly low-income children of color. 

  4. Ninety percent of all students who struggle with reading in first grade will continue to struggle—a statistic that debunks the long-held notion of struggling readers simply being “late bloomers” who will come to reading in their own time.

  5. Children who can’t read well by third grade face a higher risk of dropping out of high school. In fact, a special report on third-grade reading from the Annie E. Casey Foundation made this clear declaration: “There are 7.9 million low-income children, birth through age 8 in the United States. If current trends hold true, 83 percent, or 6.6 million of these children, are at increased risk of dropping out of high school because they can't read proficiently by the end of third grade.”


  6. The Annie E. Casey report also found that nearly 70 percent of all fourth-grade public school students across the country “scored below proficient in grade-level reading in 2009,” based on scores from the nationally normed National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) test

  7. The most recently available NAEP scores (from 2017) showed that the percentage of fourth-grade students who scored below the proficient level hadn’t changed much since 2009. One alarming data point regarding the lowest-performing students stood out: “In comparison to 2015, the 2017 reading scores were significantly lower for fourth-grade students at the 10th and 25th percentiles.”

  8. Norma Nelson, who runs an organization dedicated to boosting childhood literacy in Texas, stated in 2018 that NAEP reading scores for African American and Hispanic students should be considered “catastrophically low.” Across the nation, “only 18 percent of black students and 21 percent of Hispanic students tested ‘above proficient’ in reading by the end of fourth grade,” according to Nelson.

  9. Teen pregnancy is far more common among girls with low reading levels, according to the American Public Health Association.

  10. Most juvenile and adult prison inmates have low literacy levels, with 19 percent of juvenile inmates being functionally illiterate, according to some sources. Education and literacy training—which typically cost less than prison—have been shown to reduce inmates’ rate of recidivism.

This is just a snapshot of the costs and consequences of what some say is a literacy crisis. Although the facts above mostly pertain to children and adolescents, millions of adults also struggle with insufficient reading and writing skills, which may lead to increased problems with healthcare, financial stability, underemployment, and more. Indeed, according to the International Literacy Association, the global cost of illiteracy now exceeds $1 trillion in terms of “health, crime, welfare, lost earnings, lost business productivity, and other societal problems.”

Fortunately, there is plenty of research to support the idea that early, scientifically supported intervention and reading instruction can make a world of difference.

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