Literacy — which, in a more modern definition, encompasses not only reading and writing, but complex language comprehension — is the foundation for future success among all learners. But too many students are falling through the cracks. Nearly one in 10 people around the world are illiterate, costing the global economy more than $1 trillion a year and leading to other problems such as poverty, poor health and incarceration. It’s time we make more significant progress in this area. Read on to learn the ABC’s on how to help.

Who is Illiterate and Why? (“I” is for Inequality)

Among the estimated 750 million people around the world who are illiterate, nearly two-thirds are women and more than 100 million are young people, according to UNESCO Institute for Statistics. Even more alarming is that, globally, nearly half of all children won’t be able to be proficient in reading or math by the time they are of age to complete high school. Here in the U.S., the literacy rates are higher, but the disparity between rich and poor are stark: 80 percent of kids from low-income households aren’t proficient in reading by third grade, and are 13 times less likely to graduate high school than their peers.

There is a racial disparity as well. According to an Annie E. Casey Foundation report, the share of low-income black, Hispanic, and Native American students in the U.S. who scored below proficient on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading test was very high (88, 86 and 87 percent, respectively) and much larger than the share of low-income white or Asian/Pacific Islander students (74 and 72 percent).

Why is Third-grade Reading So Important? (“F” is for “Future”)

In early child education, kids learn how to read and comprehend language through third grade — and by fourth grade, in the typical development cycle, they are using those skills to learn about other subjects (learning to read vs. reading to learn). In fact, research shows that there’s a strong link between literacy and STEM skills. Per The Campaign for Grade Level Reading (GLR), early readers tend to prefer more science-based texts (such as basic information on animals and insects) than fiction. GLR is working on supporting programs that align the two fields, adding meaning-based strategies to classroom lessons.

But there’s a “future” factor to all this. Sociologist Donald Hernandez found that children who don’t read proficiently by the third grade — no matter their household income status — are four times more likely to drop out of school later on in their education journey than other students. And every student who doesn’t get a high school diploma costs our economy an estimated $260,000 in lost earnings, taxes and productivity.

In short, this milestone is the greatest predictor of high school graduation and career success, but too many children are falling through the cracks. According to GLR, two-thirds of U.S. fourth graders are not proficient readers and four out of every five low-income students miss this milestone. That’s why we need to find interventions that make a difference.

Why is third-grade reading so important? | Giving CompassWhich Literacy Solutions Are Working?

“T” is for Training teachers. Making sure that educators are up to the task of teaching kids to read is essential. The Center for High Impact Philanthropy (CHIP) identified the Children’s Literacy Initiative (CLI) as an exemplary program in this area. CLI trains teachers and works with school administrators from pre-K through third grade, giving them the tools and resources they need. After studying more than a dozen federally-funded programs in this sector, CLI stood out as particularly strong, with four low-income urban districts reporting measurable success from students who learned from CLI-trained teachers vs. those that didn’t.

“R” is for Readiness. This means making sure children are prepared to learn before they go to kindergarten. Research finds that as early as 18 months, children form the building blocks for vocabulary development, whether it’s through spoken words or songs. Interventions at this stage of development can help close the gap that exists among learners in low-income households — on average, poor children hear 30 million fewer words than their peers! Programs that attempt to address this include Child Trends (a nonpartisan organization which conducts high-quality research on development), First Five Years Fund (which advances federal investment in early childhood education), and Zero to Three (which supports education professionals, parents and policymakers).

“S” is for Summer learning. Otherwise known as the “summer slide,” research has shown that low-income students are at a disadvantage due to a pause in reading skills development during the months off from school, and by the fifth grade, they could be 2.5 to 3 years behind their more affluent peers, who have more access to summer learning programs. Making sure every child has access to books can mitigate this loss and improve test scores, while summer school initiatives that target low-income students (such as Summer Advantage USA, BELL Summer,  and Horizons National) can make a huge impact. This success story from the Santa Ana Unified District demonstrates how it’s done, and Readers 2 Leaders details their after-school programs, in which students gain an average of 1.5 years of skills for every year of participation.

Adult Literacy | Giving CompassIssue area: “A” is for Adult Literacy

There are an estimated 36 million adults in the U.S. who lack basic literacy skills, and the children of parents who lack reading proficiency are 72 percent more likely to be low literate themselves (it should be noted that the term “family literacy” is sometimes used instead of “adult literacy,” and refers to the intergenerational connections within this area).

Among adults at the lowest literacy levels, 43 percent live in poverty and 70 percent are welfare recipients; they also having a higher rate of unemployment and earn lower wages than the national average. Meanwhile, three out of every four incarcerated people are either illiterate or low literate, but inmates who get an education are 43 percent less likely to return to prison.

This issue affects other sectors as well. Consider that to read the instructions on the back of an aspirin bottle you need an eighth grade-reading level and it may not come as a surprise that $230 billion is health care costs are linked to low adult literacy rates.

Organizations like the Barbara Bush Foundation are tackling the issue through tech innovations such as mobile apps that help adult learners gain skills where they are (on the way to work, at home, out shopping), promoted through a prize competition open to all entrepreneurs and innovators.

Edtech | Giving CompassIssue Area: “E” is for Edtech

In a few of the sections above, we’ve mentioned literacy interventions such as mobile apps for adult learners and solar-powered tablets for children who may be in areas off the energy grid. But Edtech is a huge category that encompasses many different innovations, from game-based learning tools to text-to-speech apps to streaming platforms that can help develop vocabulary skills for preschoolers. This piece from Getting Smart reflects on a reluctancy on the part of educators to adopt some of these tools, either from a lack of evidence that they work or a prohibitive cost. Their recommendation is to embrace new edtech, but in a strategic way. Nonprofits can certainly play a role in this regard by funding entrepreneurs looking to break through barriers in early education, involving teachers in the process and making sure that schools serving disadvantaged children have access to what works. Let’s just factor in the biases in machine learning.

Issue area: “G” is for Global Literacy

UNICEF reports that there are some good trends to acknowledge, such as literate youth (ages 15-24) around the world rising from 83 percent to 91 percent over two decades. But the gender gap is still wide. Young women account for 59 percent of the low literacy number, and research shows a connection to more child marriages, domestic abuse and health problems (those with low literacy skills are often reluctant to seek preventative medicine). The differences between poor and wealthy nations also shows an alarming disparity. Sub-Saharan Africa has some of the lowest literacy rates in the world, below 30 percent, as the chart below shows. And in 2017, UNESCO research revealed that six out of 10 children and adolescents are not learning a minimum in reading and mathematics.

Many international programs attempt to target these areas of need. The World Literacy Foundation has formed partnerships across sectors to help educators get the resources they need, from solar-powered tablets in Africa to after-school programs in Latin America. Room to Read uses evidence-based outcomes in countries such as Tanzania and Zambia to reach rural areas and help young children, especially girls, get the skill training they need. Book Aid International has set a goal to reach five major marginalized groups by the year 2020. Here are five more ways to improve global literacy.

How Can You Help People Learn to Read and Write?

“D” is for data. Trust the numbers.

In this area, we need to pay attention to measurements so we know where initiatives can have the most impact. While census data was a common methodology in the past, surveys are preferred now and give us a clearer picture of the populations where the biggest gaps exist.

“M” is for money. Support successful programs.

We’ve mentioned the Children’s Literacy Initiative, which uses evidence-based solutions. But also make sure you check out The Campaign for Grade Level Reading’s “bright spots” list that showcases program models with extensive track records of efficacy.

“B” is for brainpower. Share bold ideas.

From artificial intelligence in classrooms to online vocabulary games, there is a lot of room for innovation in this field. Making sure that each child gets the same opportunity to learn — regardless of race, gender or background — will require thinking outside the box.

“L” is for love. Encourage a strong connection to reading.

Many international programs focus on sending classroom supplies to areas badly in need of resources. While that’s commendable, experts in the field, such as Rana Dajani from We Love Reading, emphasize that fostering passion among students for books will have the most impact overall.

“P” is for priority. Make sure literacy is front and center.

In the U.S., there can be a severe lack of transparency on where education funds go. Policymakers and advocates must hold leaders accountable for making sure resources are directed to the right places and that the money is spent wisely.

Literacy Organizations | Giving CompassTop Organizations in the Literacy Field

Learn more about the organizations that are working toward improving literacy.


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Continue learning about literacy and find out more ways you can make an impact in this issue area.