OP ED: Literacy Is An Everyday Miracle
Before moving to Virginia, Billy Hallal was a Site Coordinator at Seeds. You can take the boy out of Seeds but you can’t take Seeds out of the boy. Now at ForKids — one of the largest providers of homeless services to families in Virginia — he’s still sharing our mission. He recently wrote an op ed about the impact adult literacy has on society, and ultimately, the families ForKids serves. Here’s an excerpt of what he wrote:
“…Since COVID, Seeds has added online tutoring to their options, and they now have students from around the country and the world—including a few ForKids participants! I’m very proud to have been part of this small Cleveland-based nonprofit.
I didn’t think much about adult literacy before I started working in the field. I didn’t know, for example, that literacy covers more than just reading and writing. There are different types: Numerical literacy is the ability to use math skills in everyday life. Digital literacy is the ability to operate computer and online technology. There’s health literacy, financial literacy, media literacy—the list goes on.
Taken as a whole, literacy accounts for almost every way in which we interact with the world. But even though I’d spent most of my career to that point working in education, literacy was just something I took for granted.
Most of the time, we’re able to navigate the world with our comprehension skills on autopilot. For many adults in the US, that’s simply not the case. “Functionally illiterate” is the term used to describe those unable to read, write, or do basic math above a fourth-grade level. There are a lot of them in the US: studies estimate the descriptor applies to more than 43 million adults nationwide.
Imagine, for a moment, the difficulties of day-to-day life faced by adults with limited literacy skills. The act of reading the news, an email, or even a text message from a loved one becomes a treacherous minefield to navigate. Imagine struggling to read a bus schedule, a utility bill, or even doctor’s instructions. Most, but not all, adults with limited literacy do not have a high school diploma, leaving them with limited employment options. They are twice as likely to live in poverty as adults with a high school diploma, and their earning potential is neatly cut in half.
HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?
None of this, of course, is by accident. Most of us here will understand the role systemic racism and structural inequalities play in school funding, zoning, nutrition & health, and more fields play in creating massive opportunity gaps for students.
There are also many compelling reasons a student might leave school prior to graduation. Most of these students are already living below the poverty line. They might have to take care of siblings or aging parents or grandparents. They might take an opportunity to earn more money for themselves and their family. They may be pushed out by teachers or a school system that doesn’t have the capacity to meet their needs.
Regardless of the reasons, adults without diplomas or with lower literacy levels should be treated with dignity and respect. Yet in a culture that simultaneously undervalues education while treating people perceived as uneducated or unintelligent with gleeful cruelty, they’re often made to feel deeply ashamed. This stigma often makes them hesitant to seek the support in advancing their education.
THE COSTS OF LIMITED LITERACY
The failure of our institutions to adequately teach literacy has repercussions far beyond education. Lower literacy rates reinforce the school-to-prison pipeline: Three-quarters of US state inmates have limited literacy skills or did not finish high school. Limited literacy costs the US billions each year: $225 billion in lost productivity revenue, crime, and unemployment, and $230 billion a year in health care costs (along with massive amounts of avoidable health problems) linked to limited literacy. Despite the overwhelming evidence of a national problem, literacy and basic skills programs for adults remain woefully underfunded to address the crisis at hand.
By now, some of you may be noticing some overlap with the work in homelessness by ForKids. Just as they might with people experiencing homelessness, many people tend to unwittingly embrace cultural mythmaking and assume the worst about adults with limited literacy. They may shrug adult literacy off as someone else’s problem, though the numbers prove it affects us all. The federal government’s commitment for both crises remains lukewarm, throwing half-hearted millions at deeply ingrained issues that require billions to address.
Proponents in both fields, homelessness and adult education, are still struggling to shift public perception toward the notion that housing and literacy are fundamental human rights. Both crises will likely take a significant amount of time, money, and political pressure before we start to see major progress.
What we can do in the meantime are the things we can normally do:
- Learn more about the subject.
- Contact a senator or representative.
- Donate time or money to organizations addressing systemic issues (like Seeds or ForKids).
- We can also change the way we think and talk about the issues of adult literacy—and perceived intelligence, even—in our lives. Notice the prevalence of “punching down” toward characters with limited literacy skills across film and TV—even in media typically considered progressive.
- Notice how critiques of politicians often focus on their perceived unintelligence at the expense of addressing ethical or practical concerns about their policies.
- Get curious about the way people in your life talk about people perceived as less educated or less intelligent.
- Get curious about the way you talk or think about these people.
As a final note: Smarter people than me have written on the limited effectiveness of “raising awareness,” but having actual conversations about less-covered issues like adult literacy can really help move the needle for individuals—and we have to start somewhere.
Spend a second thinking about the act of reading letters or numbers and you’ll realize how astounding a process it is. There are some squiggles and shapes on a page or screen. On their own, they carry no intrinsic meaning. But our brains perceive them and process them—though they are not wired to do so— and the world opens.
We can do our taxes, read news from any corner of the world, search for the perfect meme to send the group chat. Literacy is an everyday miracle. Let’s try not to take it for granted.
Let’s try to share it any way we can.
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Billy Hallal is a Community Grant Writer & Content Specialist at forkids.org.
While at Seeds, he wrote a poignant essay about the students that were in his classroom.