Illiteracy: what are its causes and effects?

There are a lot of things that depend on when and where you are talking. An illiterate person in Ancient Mesopotamia was like 98% of the population and had to hire someone else to track goat-related trading. (The majority of early writing systems were invented to collect taxes or track commercial transactions.)

Today, however, being illiterate is much more prevalent in the United States. The truth is, very few people are completely illiterate. Most people can recognize letters, for example. There are many people who are functionally illiterate, meaning they do not read well enough to be able to interact with the modern world. The cutoff point is usually around a fourth grade reading level.

An adult in the US who is illiterate may be illiterate for several reasons:

  1. A learning disability that is undiagnosed or undertreated, such as dyslexia. It is especially true for older adults who went through school before learning disabilities were widely recognized.
  2. There is a lack of formal education. People who dropped out of school in 5th grade because they needed to support their families.
  3. Deliberately avoiding formal education. This is particularly problematic for people of color. Many years ago, Black Americans were simply not allowed to attend school in much of the South. Across modern America, some children attend schools that are so inadequate and so terrible that they never learn to read.
  4. Domestic violence. Some parents claim they are “homeschooling,” but do not actually provide sufficient educational resources.
  5. Limited English proficiency. Despite being literate in their native language, many immigrants have not yet learned enough English to function in the country.

Irrespective of the cause, illiteracy is a huge problem. Your employment prospects are greatly hampered as most jobs require basic reading and writing skills. This makes interacting with authority very difficult. To fill out your taxes or apply for food stamps, you must be literate. There is a lot of paperwork involved in paying a traffic fine or appearing in court. Voting requires reading. Illiteracy limits your available entertainment; browsing the internet is a lot less fun. Additionally, it can be a source of shame and stress.

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