The Business of Illiteracy


The Cost to Business at $4 Billion per Year, The Cost to Canadian Society Has Been Estimated at $10 Billion per Year$60 billion annually in Loss to U.S. Companies, Experts Estimate $225 billion a Year in Loss to the American Economy If these headlines had appeared on the front page of your news outlet, they might have grabbed your attention. The reality, however, is that they appeared under the radar, in what most people would consider dull “White Papers”. The actual abstracts are:

……The cost of illiteracy to Canadian society has been estimated at $10 billion per year, the cost to business at $4 billion — Journal article YLB.

…… And if measured in terms of financial interest, it means literacy problems cost corporate America about $60 billion a year in lost productivity — National Institute for Literacy.

……Experts estimate that low literacy costs the American economy $225 billion a year in lost productivity — Carnevale, Gainer & Meltzer, The American Society for Training and Development, 1988 and The Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, U.S. Department of Labor, 1991.

North America’s business community is well aware of the implications of this data. It’s been trying to curtail these and future losses for decades with resources that have proved insufficient given the size of the problem.

In 1990, Southwestern Bell received 15,000 job applications; only 800 passed the company’s basic skills test. In Texas, which ranks second behind only California in its quantity of technology workers, an estimated 34,000 skilled technology jobs go unfilled. 500,000 Information Technology jobs in the U.S. went unfilled last year. This number is expected to surpass 1 million in two years.

The state of Massachusetts discovered that more than one-third of its 3.2 million workers are ill-equipped to meet the demands of a rapidly changing economy. Of that one-third, many have high school diplomas but lack the basic math, reading, writing and analytical skills needed to perform adequately in the workplace.
: The Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth

General Motors devotes more than 15% of the $170 million it spends yearly on job training to remedial education. 50% of Fortune 500 companies underwrite remedial training for employees. The cost? $300 million a year. According to labor data, bypassing intelligent, hard working, ambitious applicants due to skills deficiencies risks running out of applicants altogether.

In 1987, Xerox Corporation chairman David Kearns foresaw the necessity of hiring unqualified employees for the sake of company expansion. According to Kearns, businesses throughout the U.S. could be forced to hire one million entry-level employees annually who are unable to read or write. Recent government statistics support Kearns’ prognosis: between 1995 and 1998, the number of companies suffering shortages of skilled labor surged.

Polaroid established the first on-the-job basic skills program in the early 1970s. Other companies followed. Still, 90% of American companies lack job training programs. An exception is Hershey Foods in Pennsylvania, which sends any employee without a high school diploma to GED classes.
Source: “Illiteracy in the Workplace”, Jane A. Malonis, Encyclopedia of Business;, Nov., 2008,

Springfield, MA-based Smith and Wesson has been using the University of Massachusetts since the late 1980s as a source for training in remedial skills and English as a Second Language (ESL). In 1996, with production work diversifying, it expanded its skills training. ”We needed something more formal and aggressive,” said Bob Pion, director of training for Smith and Wesson. “So we turned to a professional organization dedicated to skills issues.” Enter Workplace Education Group (South Hadley, MA), called upon to advise Smith and Wesson on its workforce training needs.

But implementation costs can be preemptive. Start-up costs range from $2,500 to $100,000. Few companies can afford the $35 million on literacy training that Motorola, Inc. had expended by 1993. The training afforded the company the luxury of turning away job applicants whose reading and writing skills fell below the seventh-grade level.

And even though a minimum of an eighth-grade literacy level increasingly disqualifies applicants in today’s workplace, as a starting point for training, it is much more cost effective. Only 13% of American companies offer remedial training to employees in literacy and math, down from a high of 24% in 1993, according to an AMA study released last year. The decrease belies a crucial finding of the study: 38% of applicants lacked the necessary reading, writing and math skills to do the jobs they sought, a 15% increase in the past two years alone.

According to statistics published in 1998 by the National Institute for Literacy, skills deficiencies cost businesses more than $60 billion annually, an amount comparable to Mobil Corporation’s 1997 revenues.
: America’s 60 Billion Problem, Dannah Baynton

The 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) indicated that in 1993, 29% of adults who scored below “basic” on the prose scale of the National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) were employed full-time. This number rose to 35% in 2003. Translation: 10.8 million adults were working full-time in the United States with the lowest level of literacy skills. An additional 10%, over 3 million, were working part-time at this level, a two percent increase from 1993.

The increase suggests a need to revive the federal government’s National Workplace Literacy Program (NWLP) of the late 1980s through the mid-1990s. The NWLP provided grants for developing and delivering adult literacy, numeracy, and English language educational programs directly in, or in close proximity to, places where low literacy adults work.
: Tom Sticht, International Consultant in Adult Education

Outsourcing to the Top of the List

According to a United Nations survey, the U.S. ranks 49th out of 158 participating nations in adult literacy. Below are the literacy rates of three of the top ten locations where U.S. businesses outsource accounting, IT, services and manufacturing positions:

  • Russia – 98%
  • Philippines – 94%
  • India – 65.38%

Philippines, ranking high at 94%, is home to many bilingual citizens — Filipino and English are widely spoken. A study released from the University of California at Berkeley says the U.S. lost more than 1 million white-collar jobs in the 1990s and “hundreds of thousands more since the turn of the century.” The study also shows that outsourcing is accelerating.

“If you simultaneously read Indian newspapers and U.S. newspapers, you’re going to get a good correlation between layoffs here and jobs being created there,” said Ashok Deo Bardhan, a researcher for the study. He added that as many as 30,000 jobs were lost to India in June alone, and that 14 million U.S. service jobs are vulnerable.
: Hiawatha Bray, The Boston Globe, Nov. 2, 2003

An emerging global economy is shaping economic conditions in the U.S. The phenomenon is profoundly altering the nature of work. Jobs that require repetitive tasks are declining and their pay rates are decreasing. The manufacturing industry is particularly vulnerable. Multi-national corporations can conduct operations anywhere in the world, often choosing locations based on optimum wage levels and productivity. Routine processes are increasingly performed in third world countries at wages inadequate for workers in developed countries.

Living wages in developed countries are earned by jobs that require advanced skills and increased productivity. Service industries, especially those that do not require face-to-face customer interaction, are following manufacturing’s lead.
: Reich, 1992

The National Adult Literacy Survey (Kirsch, Jungeblut, Jenkins & Kolstad, 1993) shows that about 50% of American adults perform at the lower two of five literacy levels reported by the survey. Both are considered functionally illiterate. The 18- to 30-year-old age bracket represents the highest levels of functional illiteracy. Someone from this age group may already be working next to you. Nearly 2 million students graduating from high schools annually are in this group — functionally illiterate — a frustrating reality for American business and industry we are all paying for.

Does literacy really pay off? Companies took it upon themselves to find out. Zircoa, manufacturer of nonclay refractories in Solon, Ohio, measured the productivity and profits of 10 workers in 10 different jobs. After remedial skills training, the total profit from these workers jumped from $14,000 to $75,000.

Marine Mechanical, a Euclid, Ohio-based supplier of propulsion systems, tracked specific machine-related productivity levels during its training programs. A 60% decline in parts deviations resulted.

One company reported improved attendance and decreased worker’s comp claims. Two others reported lower scrap and waste levels. And one boasted that its scrap costs declined from $256,900 to $168,200 after just one year of training.

Over the past two decades, there has been an increase in workplace-based literacy programs. The growth is likely to continue. Workplace technology and organizational restructuring are altering the nature of jobs. Workers are learning new skills or finding employment in different areas. These changes mean more training, producing the collateral effect of improved literacy skills.

True literacy is a necessity to remain employable in an increasingly competitive job market. It gives potential employees an edge. Statistics show that pre-employment literacy training or the use of a “Self Directed” program such as the Literacy Pod,, makes candidates far more desirable and financially successful.

A look at the relationship between national literacy rates and per capita Gross National Product (GNP) suggests a strong correlation between literacy and increased income levels.

  • Literacy Rate GNP per capita below 40%: less than $600
  • Literacy Rate GNP per capita above 98%: more than $12,000

The message, at least in individual economic terms, is that literacy pays off. Illiteracy may also mean income loss for society as a whole. In 1993, according to the National Adult Literacy Survey, adult illiteracy in the U.S. carries an estimated price tag of more than $17 billion per year, including lost income, tax revenue, welfare, unemployment, crime and incarceration, and training costs for business and industry. This suggests that the price of illiteracy for society outweighs the cost of getting people literate.

Stats and More Stats

  • The military spends $70 million per year on remediation for recruits.
  • 50% of the chronically unemployed are not functionally literate.
  • An adult without a high school diploma earns 42% less than an adult with a high school diploma
  • High school dropouts have an unemployment rate 4 times greater than that of high school graduates.
  • 41-44% of adults who scored at Level I on the National Adult Literacy Survey (1992) were in poverty, compared with 4-6% of adults who scored at the highest level.
    : Ohio Literacy Resource Center

Some researchers support the view that literacy skills should be taught in a discrete, carefully sequenced way. This approach is thought to be appropriate for people at an especially low level of skills, some of whom might have learning disabilities that make traditional methods ineffective.
: Shaywitz & Shaywitz, 2001

One study found that with an incremental approach, “… almost 70 % of workers reported math and/or reading improvements. They noted improved work accuracy, more confidence, a greater sense of company loyalty and, in the end, a more efficient workday. Supervisors observed a greater openness to change among employees, a general attitude improvement in teamwork, and identified broader options for promotion.”

Another study concluded the matter most persuasively: ”Experts estimate that low literacy costs the American economy $225 billion a year in lost productivity. Improved workplace literacy can increase employees’ efficiency, effectiveness, and productivity on the job. As a result, employers experience greater customer satisfaction and process improvement, a lower incident of accidents, reduced waste, and fewer errors.” That’s a cost we can live with.

English Spelling: a Case of Psychological Child Abuse


Modification of an article by Abraham F. Citron, Ph.D.
Dept. of Educ. Sociology, Wayne State Univ, Detroit, Mi. (1913-2006)

At the portals of education we have laid, not a highway, but a labyrinth.

Brainwashed as we are, we do not perceive our spelling as difficult, irrational, deceptive, inconsistent, clumsy, frustrating and wasteful; but it is and especially so to children.

Our spelling devours hours of study for years, squanders teachers’ energy, blocks and frustrates children, renders writing more onerous and reading more difficult, strings out our words and inflates every cost of written communication. Our child-defeating spelling is one of the basic sources of academic discouragement and failure, aiding in the transformation of many children into psychological or physical dropouts.

The large majority of elementary and high school students in this country are either very poor, poor or mediocre spellers; the big majority of adults are no better. Millions of student hours are spent on spelling, millions of dollars are spent in teaching time, yet results are quite poor. Most students dislike spelling, many students abhor it.

Make no mistake about it, spelling is inextricably interactive with reading; our inconsistent spelling contributes greatly to reading difficulties.

Our culture is based on words and on power over words; our instructional system is built almost entirely of words. Every other power and expansion in academics comes through mastery of words. Even the artist, mathematician, musician, athlete finds his or her career stunted without power over words. Our system moves on words, runs on words, exists on and in words. At the narrow base of this immense system are 26 letters which we combine into hundreds of thousands of written words.

Much depends, therefore, on how we combine these letters. Note that we are working with an alphabet not at all designed for the sounds of English, but borrowed from the Romans, who had designed it to express the sounds of Latin. At the outset we are stuck with only 26 letters to express 41 (some say 44) phonemes of spoken English.

A second difficulty which has been gathering on our word system over centuries is that letters have been combined into words according to differing schemes at different times, letters have been stuck on just to justify lines of print, spellings have been borrowed from other languages. We have changed the sound of letters, we have changed the way we pronounced words while the spelling has often congealed on the old form. All this and more has evolved over centuries in haphazard ways.

The result is that we have inherited an orthographic system full of inconsistencies, irrationalities, quirks, exceptions and disorganization. And because, by the time we have become adults, we are accustomed to it, we unthinkingly force this “system” on our children.

We double-cross children in hundreds of ways as they struggle to master our unnecessarily difficult word forms.

We teach children a hard ‘c’ as in ‘cat,’ ‘can,’ ‘candy,’ and then double-cross them with words such as ‘certain,’ ‘center,’ ‘cement.’ In a word such as ‘cease,’ the first ‘s’ sound is expressed with a ‘c,’ the second with an ‘s ‘; in ‘civic,’ two different sounds are expressed with ‘c.’ Observe what a complicated mess we make with ‘necessary.’ We teach children to sound ‘k’ as in ‘kick,’ ‘kid,’ ‘klan,’ and then confront them with ‘knee,’ ‘knob,’ ‘knife,’ etc. Further, if hard ‘c’ and ‘k’ are sounded alike, why do we need them both? We teach children ‘p’ as in ‘poor,’ ‘put,’ ‘push,’ then force them to handle ‘photo,’ ‘phrase,’ ‘pneumonia,’ etc.

We cross up children with our miserable ‘ie’ and ‘ei’ combinations as in ‘believe’ and ‘receive’; and the “i before e” rule is little help since the exceptions are nearly as numerous as the examples. With ‘craze’ and ‘haze’ we use a ‘z’, but to express the same sound in ‘please’ and ‘tease’ we use an ‘s.’ We cross up the kids by spelling ‘lease’ with an ‘s’ and then ‘fleece,’ the same sound, with a ‘c.’ In both these words, the vowel has the same sound but in one we express it with a double ‘e’ and in the other with ‘ea.’

We force children to drag along outmoded and useless ‘ough’ forms in words such as ‘through,’ ‘bough,’ ‘plough,’ ‘though,’ ; and useless ‘gh’s in a host of words such as ‘light,’ ‘might,’ ‘bright,’ ‘night,’ etc. Our spelling is literally laced with these inconsistent and meaningless forms outmoded in the long, long ago.

[Professor Julius Nyikos, of Washington and Jefferson College, did a comprehensive study of the spelling of the phonemes in six standard, desk-size dictionaries. He found 1,768 ways of spelling 40 English phonemes! If he had included unabridged dictionaries in his research he would have undoubtedly found several others.] [1] [Furthermore, there 26 single letters and at least 341 combinations of from two to five letters to represent a single phoneme. There is not even one English spelling rule without exceptions — some of the exceptions have exceptions! A computerized attempt to use a set of 203 spelling rules was able to spell correctly only 49% of a list of 17,000 common words.] [2]

What would happen in our educational system with numbers if we told children that a 2 was two except when it had the value of 4 or 7? Or take a more extreme example: what would happen to children if we used red lights for ‘stop’ only some of the time and green lights for ‘stop’ some of the time? Such examples highlight the cruciality of consistency in basic education. Yet we throw orthographic inconsistencies at children all the time and wonder why so many find our written system difficult. [3]

II. Reliability, Reliability, Reliability.
Children learn most of the things they need to know, without formal training. If we look at the way they learn it “naturally” we see that, given motivation, they learn things most quickly and easily if they can rely on an environmental response, if they can discern a pattern that does not fail them.

Learning to walk is a complex matter, but doubtless one reason it is achievable is that the child can depend on the forces of gravity, distribution of weight and balance, which are constant. The child is rewarded every time balance is maintained and taught by a tumble when balance is lost. The child feels balance being maintained or being lost.

Learning to talk is enormously complex, but again surely one reason it is achievable is that certain sounds are always associated with certain objects, actions, ideas. The spoken word ‘mother,’ or ‘mamma,’ or ‘ma’ always means a given person in a given role, as does ‘pa.’ The spoken syllable ‘milk’ always means milk, ‘jump’ means jump and so on. The sounds are reliable hence learnable. We have little trouble teaching children to tell time because we are consistent on the differing jobs of the clock hands, and we are consistent on the numbers and their positions on the clock face. Learning always involves perception of a pattern – the simpler and more reliable the pattern, the quicker the learning.

A basic principle of all learning is that children need a perceived reliable and integrated world as a basis for learning. All aspects of socialization, including necessary skills, are much more readily acquired if the child has the confident feeling of being in a reliable, secure and therefore a trusted world. Such a world is integrated in that one aspect of experience builds into or reinforces another. For example, learning to walk builds into learning to run, which builds into participation in (social interaction) children’s games requiring running. This means that learning to talk will build into learning to write and read. In an integrated world, writing and reading should be as closely and as naturally as possible linked to speaking.

The principle of reliability does not mean that a child [will] never be surprised or shocked or puzzled or discouraged. It does not require a world of monotony. But it does require a regularity of pattern in the skills crucial to the culture.

III. Our Present System Constitutes Psychic Child Abuse.
What is being insisted upon here is nothing other than we have all said repeatedly over the years as a basis for the education of children. We have said, “Don’t lie to children.” The position here put forward is that our spelling is deceptive — it is one lie after another and hence it constitutes, not education, but psychic child abuse. Unnecessarily difficult and confusing word forms, which many children fail, are not helping them to “grow” — it is not “educating” them — it is child abuse.

It is no less abuse because the system is administered in the name of knowledge and culture, or because it is enshrined in tradition. It is no less abuse because the forms come down to us wrapped in the prestige of “English literature:’ It is no less abuse because the system is standard throughout the land or because we all participate in it, nor because it is curricularized and blessed with the authority of every school board of every state. It is no less abuse because children cannot manage the perspective or the courage to cry out specifically against it. It is abuse because it traps children in needless drudgery and frustration, detracts from their feelings of success and of adequacy, defies and negates their sense of logic, robs many of them of love of written forms, and forces them over a course which many fail.

IV. For the children, we should have the courage to change.
Why haven’t we long ago shifted to a consistent phonemic spelling which was and is the intent of our alphabetic system? Despite high-sounding “lexical” and etymological rationalizations, the real reason is that we are used to the forms and do not want to undergo the inconvenience of change. As one graduate student put it, “I’ve learned to operate in one system and I’ll be damned if I’ll learn another.”

But tremendous educational and monetary benefits could be reaped through such a change. Before we opt for costly pie-in-the-sky gimmicks, we should reform our child-defeating spelling. Simplified spelling could be the most fundamental and far-reaching educational innovation since the introduction of the common school.

[1] Nyikos, Julius, “A Linguistic Perspective of Functional Illiteracy,” The Fourteenth LACUS Forum 1987 (Lake Bluff, Illinois: Linguistic Association of Canada and the United States, 1988), pp. 146-163.

[2] Kenneth H. Ives, Written Dialects N SpellingReforms: History N Alternatives (Chicago, Ill.: Prpgressiv Publishr, 1979), pp. 25, 80, 81.
[3] It is well known that experimental psychologists have induced apathy and behavioral breakdown in rats by training them in behavior leading to reward (food) and then switching the reward to punishment.

How Our Spelling Damages the Mind


A slight modification of an article by
Frederick Atherson Fernald, Ph.D.

Learning to read the English language is one of the worst mind-stunting processes that has ever formed a part of the education of any people. Its evil influence arises from the partly phonetic, partly lawless character of English spelling. Altho each letter represents some sound oftener than any other, there is hardly a letter in the alphabet that does not represent more than one sound, and hardly a sound in the language that is not represented in several ways, while many words are written with as many silent letters as significant ones.

Frequently, there is nothing in a word to indicate in which of these ways its component sounds are represented, nothing in the written group of letters to show which sounds they stand for, and which of them, if any, are silent, so that a learner can never be sure of pronouncing rightly an English word that he has not heard spoken, nor of spelling correctly one that he has never seen written. The spelling of almost every word must be learned by sheer force of memory. In this work the pupil’s reasoning powers cannot be utilized, but must be subdued, while his memory is sadly overworked.

In the affairs of the child’s daily life, the logical following of rules is rewarded; in learning to read, it brings him only bewilderment and discomfiture. He is taught that b-o-n-e stands for bohn (not bo-ne), and t-o-n-e for tohn, but also that d-o-n-e stands for dun, that g-o-n-e spells gawn, m-o-v-e spells moov, and b-r-o-n-z-e is bronz. Now when he comes in reading to another similar word, as none, he has no means of telling whether to call it nun, noon, or non; he can only took up at the teacher and wait to be told.

The influence of the spelling class quickly drives him to repress any inclination to reason, and he quickly gives himself up to a blind following of authority. Few children learn English spelling without getting the pernicious notion that cramming is better than thinking, and that common sense is a treacherous guide. The child who can take what he is told without asking why, who can repeat a rule without troubling himself about its meaning, gets along best. On the other hand, the child who has difficulty in learning to spell, may have to suppress his logical faculties. He is constantly trying to spell according to some principle, some rule, and of course, coming to grief.

Thus a boy who had long been at the foot of his spelling class, was one day given the word ghost, and, making a desperate attempt at analogy, (with roast), spelled it goast. Thus bringing shouts of laughter from his fellow students, he said, with clenched fist and tearful eyes, “You needn’t laugh; you all spell homelier ‘n that!” Thus, so much attention is given to spelling that children get false ideas of its importance.

The spelling, or graphic representation, becomes to them the word, while the spoken word is called the pronunciation, and is only thought of as an appendage. They learn to despise the poor speller, a prejudice which is never out-grown, and above all they become so absorbed in the manipulation of words that they have little chance to grasp the significance of the ideas for which the words were intended to stand.

If our notation of numbers were as irregular as our notation of speech, so that the numbers from 40 to 45, for instance, should be written as follows: 40, 741, 420, 43, 414, 225; and if no one could tell at sight whether a number like 7,243,812 contained several figures which were “silent,” or had exceptional values, who can doubt that the study of arithmetic, instead of being a valuable discipline, would be mere enervating drudgery? If it were proposed that children should learn a style of writing music which gave different values to the same characters, similarly placed, in different pieces and added a host of “silent” notes, the evils of learning such a system would be plainly seen. Yet many people who have forgotten their own sufferings in the spelling class cannot see that children are so very much perplexed in learning to spell, or perhaps maintain that the struggle involved “is good for them.”

“I know,” says Max Muller, “there are persons who can defend anything, and who hold that it is due to this very discipline that the English character is what it is; that it retains respect for authority; that it does not require a reason for everything; and that it does not admit that inconceivable is therefore impossible. Even English orthodoxy has been traced back to that hidden source, because a child once accustomed to believe that t-h-o-u-g-h is tho, and that t-h-r-o-u-g-h is thru, would afterwards believe anything. It may be so; still I doubt whether even such objects would justify such means.” Lord Lytton said, “A more lying, roundabout, puzzle-headed delusion than that by which we confuse the clear instincts of truth in our accursed system of spelling was never concocted by the father of falsehood. . . . How can a system of education flourish that begins by so monstrous a falsehood, which the sense of hearing suffices to contradict?”

Here is a chief cause of the incapacity for thinking which college students bring into the science laboratories. This irrational process, taken up when the child enters school, occupying a large share of his time, and continuing for six or eight years, has a powerful influence in shaping his plastic mind. When at last he is allowed to take up the study of nature — at the wrong end of his school career — what wonder that he sits with folded hands, waiting to be told facts to commit to memory, that he cannot realize what a law or rule is, and does not know to use his reason in deducing the answer to a problem?

Rational education will never flourish as it should till a reformation in the teaching of reading and spelling has been accomplished. Furthermore, Mr. J. H. Gladstone, member of the English School Board for London, has computed the number of hours spent by children in learning to read and spell English to be 2,320, while, in gaining an equal knowledge of their native tongue, Italian children spend only 945 hours. The difference amounts to nearly two school years and shows under what a disadvantage English-speaking children labor.

The most striking testimony to the irregularity of our spelling is the adoption by many teachers of a sort of Chinese mode of teaching reading. (Now it is called the whole word method!) The children are not taught that the letters represent constituent sounds of words, but they learn to recognize each group of letters as an arbitrary compound symbol standing for a word. This is more of a dead drag on the memory than even the A-B-C method, and if it could be completely carried out, would be a vastly longer process. The effect on the mind is certainly not good. Minds do have a saturation point.

“But what can be done,” will be asked, “shall our children grow up without learning to spell?” No, but the memorizing of these anomalies and contradictions can be, at least, put off till the pupil’s minds are in little danger of being perverted by it. Enough of the enormous amount of time spent on this drudgery can be saved to make possible the introduction of the study of things into the primary schools, and many of the millions of dollars which we spend each year for public education can be turned to imparting real knowledge instead of the mere tools of knowledge.

These ends may be attained by the use of phonetic spelling as an introduction to the customary spelling. Children can and do learn to read English, spelled phonetically, in a very few lessons, and then learn the traditional spelling so quickly afterward that much less time is required for the whole process than is commonly devoted to memorizing the current spelling alone. Classes taught to read this way, in Massachusetts, so early as 1851, proved the advantage of the method to the satisfaction of that able educator, Dr. Horace Mann, and the method has been successfully employed in many places in this country and in the British Isles.

[Will this information wake us up? So far it is met by the educational and political authorities with complete silence!] Probably due to the scepticism in the closed minds of our hierarchy of education.

“Johnny Can’t Read” Goes to College


According to an ACT college entrance exam study, three-fourths of students who took the ACT in 2006 lacked the skills to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing college courses in reading, math, social studies and science, even though they had taken a high school curriculum designed to prepare them for higher education.

During the 2003-04 school year, according to a 2006 report by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), more than a third of first- and second-year undergraduates reported taking a remedial course.

The Alliance for Excellent Education, a nonprofit group, reported in 2006 that community colleges alone spend $1.4 billion annually on remedial courses for recent high school graduates. The group also noted that community colleges, like public schools, are subsidized by taxes.

Although the most common remediation method used by community colleges was the remedial course, they employed other methods, including tutoring programs, computerized learning laboratories, and learning assistance programs that featured a variety of individualized programs. In 1992, according to the National Study of Developmental Education, over 90 percent of U.S. community colleges used these additional methods to supplement or substitute for remedial courses.

In addition, an estimated 700,000 students, many attending community colleges, were served by federally funded TRIO Programs, which provide non- course-based remediation (Boylan, 1995). Consequently, the study actually underestimated, perhaps by a significant margin, the number of students receiving some form of remediation in the nation’s community colleges.

1998 NCES data indicated that in Fall 1995, 41 percent of 963,000 first-time public community college students were enrolled in at least one remedial course. Twenty-six percent of 56,000 first-time private community college students took a remedial class. These percentages total 409,390 first-time community college students that took one or more remedial courses in Fall 1995.

Enrollment figures at one school, Jackson Community College, reveal the trend that the number of students requiring instruction and support in reading has been increasing in recent years. In 2001-02, the school enrolled 257 students in the remedial course English 085: College Reading. In 2005-06, 499 students were enrolled.

Enrollment decline at Jackson CC is also indicative of a lack of postsecondary preparation. Total enrollment for Fall 2006 was 6,173. By Winter 2007, enrollment was just 4,124. (Literacy Coaching, Service Learning & Literacy: Jackson Community College, Amelia Gamel).

In September 1993, the U.S. Department of Education released the most detailed portrait ever available on the condition of illiteracy in the United States. The National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) evaluated the skills of adults in three areas of proficiency: prose, document, and quantitative. Results showed:

• 23% – 25% (40 to 44 million adults) were at Level 1, the lowest of five levels. This group is the Adult Literacy Service’s primary target population—those identified as functionally illiterate.

• 25% – 28% (50 million adults) were at Level 2. According to the Executive Summary, “While their skills were more varied than those of individuals in Level 1, their repertoire was still quite limited.”

The survey also found literacy proficiencies of young adults to be somewhat lower, on average, than the proficiencies of young adults who participated in a similar study in 1985 by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The statistics are clear; illiteracy is on the rise in the United States!

The Office of Technology Assessment (OAT), an analytical arm of the U.S. Congress, stated in a 1993 report:

“Standards and requirements for literacy have increased over time and a large number of adults need to improve their literacy skills. OAT finds that at least 35 million adults have difficulty with common literacy tasks. Although many of these adults can read at rudimentary levels, they need higher levels of literacy to function effectively in society, to find employment, or to be trained for new jobs as the workplace changes… Fewer than 10% of the population in need is being reached.”

According to the American Council on Education, first-time students comprised only about 56 percent of those taking remedial courses at any given time. A large number of enrollees in remedial courses included students repeating a remedial course, those unable to register for one in their first semester, and those who delayed taking remedial courses until later in their college careers. Assuming that this 56 percent represented 409,390 first-time students, the total estimate for remedial course enrollees in Fall 1995 was 731,054.

Since enrollment figures for Spring 1996 were not available, an estimate was used to compare remediation enrollment in Fall/Spring 1995-96. Experience suggested that slightly more community college students took remedial courses in Fall 1995 (60%) than Spring 1996 (40%).

An estimate, therefore, of the number of students taking one or more remedial courses at some point during Fall/Spring 1995-96 was 1,218,422. This estimate included an unknown number of students who took one or more remedial courses in the fall and had to repeat one or more of them during the spring.

Given that some of these 1,218,422 students were taking more than one remedial course, the actual number of registrations was somewhat higher during this period. Moreover, the estimate included only courses in reading, writing, and mathematics.

NCES reported, for example, that 36 percent of the nation’s public community colleges offered remedial courses in general science, biology, chemistry, and physics. This is consistent with the 1992 National Study of Developmental Education, which found that remedial science courses were offered in about a third of U. S. community colleges.

Generally regarded as the most reliable recent study on remediation in higher education, a 1996 NCES survey during Fall 1995 used the Postsecondary Education Quick Information System to survey 847 randomly selected American higher education institutions. A major finding was that 41 percent of the students entering public community colleges in Fall 1995 were enrolled in one or more remedial courses. In private 2-year colleges, 26 percent of entering students were enrolled in a remedial course.

It is clear that remediation is a widespread necessity in U.S. community colleges. Forty-one percent of first-time community college students enroll in remedial courses. Over 1.2 million students annually participate in community college remediation, and 99 percent of the nation’s public 2-year institutions offer remedial courses.

And these estimates are conservative! According to the State Higher Education Executive Officers, only about half of U.S. states require remediation assessment and placement. Consequently, the figures include only those students who placed into remedial courses and took them, not those who may have qualified but avoided it. (Remedial Courses: Estimates of Student Participation and the Volume of Remediation in U.S. Community Colleges Prepared for The League for Innovation in the Community College, by Hunter R. Boylan and D. Patrick Saxon, National Center for Developmental Education)


Because too many high school students are not learning the basic skills needed to succeed in college or work, the nation loses more than $3.7 billion a year. This includes $1.4 billion to provide remedial education to recent high school graduates, as well as the almost $2.3 billion that the economy loses because remedial reading students are more likely to drop out of college, thereby reducing their earning potential.

Of those who enter high school in the United States, only about 70 percent will graduate—one of the lowest rates among industrialized nations (Greene & Winters, 2006). Equally important is the fact that, of those who do receive a diploma, only half are academically prepared for postsecondary education (Greene & Winters, 2005). A recent study of high school juniors and seniors taking the ACT confirms this; only half were ready for college-level reading in math, history, science, and English (ACT, 2006).

Despite these daunting statistics, the vast majority of America’s high school students are optimistic about their prospects for the future, which they anticipate includes both higher education and rewarding careers. In fact, according to a recent national survey, 81 percent of high school students expect to attend college (High School Survey of Student Engagement, 2005). This goal is wise, since 80 percent of the fastest-growing jobs in the U.S. require at least some postsecondary education (U.S. Department of Labor, 2005).

Students and their families pay approximately $283 million in community college tuition, one-fifth of the overall cost of remediation. But there’s another cost — time. Students’ time could be better spent taking college-level courses, which would advance their goals and increase their earning potential. And because many colleges do not offer credit for remedial courses, students are expending energy on study that, while necessary, delays their quest for a degree.

Individual states, and the nation as a whole, are not only paying to remediate thousands of young adults, but are risking future financial loss because students who need remediation are more likely to leave college without a degree, becoming more likely to earn less than if they had gotten a college diploma. Research shows that the leading predictor that a student will drop out of college is the need for remedial reading. While 58 percent of students who take no remedial education courses earn a Bachelor’s degree within eight years, only 17 percent of students who enroll in a remedial reading course receive a BA or BS within the same time period (NCES, 2004).

The wages of individuals with only some college experience average about $20,171 less each year than graduates. Furthermore, when students drop out, not only do they lose future income, but governments lose tax revenue, and state and national economies are deprived of additional earnings that would make them more robust.

However, the real price of college remediation is likely much higher than this. The estimate does not include the costs of remediation for students attending public or private four-year colleges, or for older community college students. Nor does it count other, non- community college-related remediation expenditures.

There are additional costs. Employers must pay for training programs to teach basic skills or purchase technology to compensate for a lack of these skills. Nonprofits and government agencies as well, pay for adult literacy training, technology, and other academic and occupational skills. (Paying Double: Inadequate High Schools and Community College Remediation, 2006)

For faster, less costly remedial education, more and more parents and adult learners are turning to self-directed courses like literacy pod to supplement what they and/or their children are not getting in the school system or through other forms of group instruction. This is especially true of reading. Too many school systems have turned away from phonics-based reading instruction to other methods that have proven ineffective.

Why Johnny Can’t Read (1955) and Why Johnny Still Can’t Read (1981), by Rudolf Franz Flesch, raised public awareness of a planned illiteracy (Chapter 2 “History of a Gimmick”, Chapter 4 “The Great Cover up”) which could never have happened had our parents known the alphabetic code. The best way to end just about anything is to let everyone know all about it.

Previous U.S Presidents poured billions of dollars and placed millions of volunteers into schools. But that won’t solve the “illiteracy scam.” The government diverted attention away from phonics in favor of the “whole language” method, by requiring it under President Clinton’s Goals 2000 program. Research in reading instruction shows conclusively, however, that the “whole language” method does not work.

The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development spent more than $1.2 billion in research to prove that phonics is the best way to teach reading. In fact, it has been proven repeatedly that direct, systematic instruction about the alphabetic code is the most powerful weapon in the fight against illiteracy. Any responsible linguist, teacher, parent, or cognitive scientist in the research community would agree. However, Don’t Be Fooled By Fake Phonics; but that’s another article.

Johnny is off to college, but first he may want to make a stop at a self-directed remedial course to help ensure his success.