Millions of Americans are at lowest literacy level

FORT WORTH - Here it is, the start of another school year, when parents attempt to get recalcitrant children to embrace the joy of reading for the sake of learning, and out comes a report that says the typical adult American read only four books in the past year.

Not exactly stellar role models, those typical adult Americans.

According to a study by the Book Industry Study Group, 27 percent of Americans surveyed in an Associated Press-Ipsos poll said they hadn't read a single book in the past year.

Excuses abound as to why grown-ups don't read more and why book sales in the United States are relatively flat. So many other activities compete for attention, plus the Internet and other media provide information and entertainment that are less time-consuming.

There's another, much less talked-about reason: the percentage of adult Americans who lack the basic literacy skills needed to function in society, much less read for pleasure.

About 41 million Americans, or 21 percent to 23 percent of the adult population, read at the lowest literacy level, according to research by the National Center for Education Statistics. One in five adults can't comprehend the instructions on a prescription bottle, fill out a job application, follow a recipe, read a simple story to the children or understand today's editorial.

The long-term ramifications of a nonliterate citizenry are chilling, especially when research shows that 65 percent of the children of illiterate adults will themselves become illiterate adults. If Mom or Dad can't read, write or perform basic computations, how can they help their children master these skills?

Illiteracy affects more than one's ability to function independently in society. It dramatically impedes the opportunity to succeed financially, to move up the employment ladder from unskilled labor into better paying positions. The median weekly pay for someone with below-basic literacy skills, according to the United Way for Metropolitan Tarrant County (which has identified improving adult literacy as a community priority), is $432; for someone at a proficient level, it's $975.

"America can no longer take active and engaged literacy for granted," said Dana Gioia, National Endowment for the Arts chairman, upon the release of a 2004 NEA report that documented the decline in literary reading in the United States. "As more Americans lose this capability, our nation becomes less informed, active and independent-minded. These are not qualities that a free, innovative or productive society can afford to lose."

Just typing those words sends a shiver down my spine. Even as my employer, along with every media company in the country, wrestles with how to capitalize on the use of "new media" to draw in younger consumers, it's impossible for me to imagine a society in which the printed word will be a quaint relic.

Futurist William Crossman, founder and director of CompSpeak 2050 Institute for the Study of Talking Computers and Oral Cultures, sees this as a positive development for human evolution.

Crossman contends that voice in/voice out (VIVO) computers "will allow the world's millions of functionally nonliterate people to access all information via the Internet and the Web without having to learn to read and write."

"Our great-great-grandchildren won't know how to write or read text, and it won't matter," Crossman wrote for "The Futurist." "They will become as skillfully 'literate' in the information technology of their generation as we are in ours."

I'm almost glad I won't be around to see it. How incredibly sad never to know the pleasure that can be found without electrical outlets, rechargeable laptop batteries or access to wireless networks: picking up a book and reading.

Jill "J.R." Labbe, deputy editorial page editor of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, can be reached at jrlabbe@star-telegram.com.