The Importance of Literacy

By Marty Richman

According to various references between 9 million and 10 million animal species inhabit the earth.  Of those only H. sapiens (human beings) can pass unlimited detailed information between individuals, groups, societies, and most important of all, generations.  We can learn from the past, report our own findings and opinions for others, then plan and speculate on the future, all because we are literate.


Here are some quotes and information which I feel are relevant:



Literacy is the ability to read and write language, and to understand visual forms of communication.[1]




“The primary sense of literacy represents the lifelong intellectual process of gaining meaning from a critical interpretation of the written or printed text. The key to all literacy is reading development, a progression of skills which begins with the ability to understand spoken words and decode written words, and culminates in the deep understanding of text.”

“Reading and development involves a range of complex language underpinnings including awareness of speech sounds…, spelling patterns…, word meaning…,grammar…, and patterns of word formation…, all of which provide a necessary platform for reading fluency and comprehension. Once these skill are acquired the reader can attain full language literacy, which includes the abilities to approach printed material with critical analysis, inference and synthesis; to write with accuracy and coherence; and to use information and insights from text as the basis for informed decisions and creative thought.” [2]


Functional illiteracy is reading and writing skills that are inadequate “to manage daily living and employment tasks that require reading skills beyond a basic level.”[3]


The UN Human Development Report 2009: “Overcoming barriers: Human mobility and development” reported that 20 percent of the U.S. population aged 16-64 from 1994-2003 lacked functional literary skills.

In developed countries, the level of functional literacy of an individual is proportional to income level and risk of committing crime. For example, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics in the United States:[4]

  • Over 60% of adults in the US prison system read at or below the fourth grade level
  • 85% of US juvenile inmates are functionally illiterate
  • 43% of adults at the lowest level of literacy lived below the poverty line, as opposed to 4% of those with the highest levels of literacy.

Illiteracy does not cause crime directly, but it limits educational, social, and economic opportunities and the result breeds poverty and crime.  According to, two-thirds of students who cannot read proficiently by the fourth grade will end up in jail or on welfare.

Do not throw away the one great advantage we have as human beings, make sure your children – and all the children in the community – learn to read and write.



[1] literacy at the Oxford English Dictionary

[2] Margie Gillis, Ed.D., President, Literacy How, Inc., and Research Affiliate, Haskins Laboratories at Yale University; Sally Grimes, Ed.M., Executive Director, Literate Nation and Founder, Grimes Reading Institute; Cinthia Haan, Author and Chair, The Haan Foundation for Children and Presnident, Power4Kids Reading Initiative; Peggy McCardle, Ph.D., M.P.H., Chief, Child Development and Behavior Branch, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; Louisa Moats, Ed.D., President, Moats Associates Consulting, Inc.; Anthony Pedriana, Author and retired urban schoolteacher and principal; Susan Smartt, Ph.D., Senior Research Associate, National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality, Vanderbilt University; Catherine Snow, Ph.D., Author, Researcher and Professor of Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education, Harvard University; Cheryl Ward, M.S.M., C.A.L.P., Co-founder of Wisconsin Reading Coalition and academic language practitioner; Maryanne Wolf, Ed.D., Author and Director, Center for Reading and Language Research, Tufts University.

[3] Schlechty, Phillip C. “Shaking Up the Schoolhouse: How to Support and Sustain Educational Innovation,” from the Library of Congress website.

[4] Wikipedia, “The Health Literacy of America’s Adults” United States Department of Education. 2006