Literacy a Hidden Problem for Many

We got a message from the elementary school warning us that our child's reading comprehension level as measured when she returns to second grade after the summer may be lower than the measurement taken at the end of first grade. The memo said not to worry because the different tests measured different things. But a couple teachers said the levels go down because kids don't read anything during the summer. So here is a short paragraph you can read to your children.

See Al run. See George run. See Bill run. See Liz run. They run for president. They run their mouths. They sound the same. They sound like Santa Claus. They say they will bring gifts for all citizens. And they will lower taxes, too. Mommy and Daddy will probably vote for them. Here is a new word. Can you say, "Libertarian?"

I started reading the newspaper in junior high. I found I could get more in-depth knowledge in less time than while watching television because I wasn't at the mercy of Walter Cronkite's reading speed or choice of stories and I didn't have to waste time sitting through commercials. The written word can convey far more information density in the form of history, politics and opinion than a mere photograph. People say a picture is worth a thousand words, but they don't say which thousand. A half hour of television at 32 frames per second displays over 2,760 pictures, but it certainly isn't worth two and three quarter million words. Graphics on a web page might be really kewl, but they usually aren't the main attractant to get people to click back. Even video games are only interesting in terms of what you can do with the pictures. People don't just sit and stare at violent, murderous images. They want to aim and shoot.

What most surprised me when I picked up the newspaper the first time was that I could read it. Perhaps because dads everywhere read the paper religiously or maybe because of the small type densely packed into narrow columns, newspapers always seemed to me to be an adult thing, something you needed at least a high school education to read, unlike television and video that is accessible to anyone with half a brain. The standard newspaper writing level at that time was supposed to be eighth grade level, i.e. all sentences and words were to be understandable by a regular eighth grade student. The New York Times was written at a twelfth grade level. I suspect the levels have dropped a few grades over the years. In my personal opinion, USA Today is written at a fourth grade level. This isn't necessarily a bad thing (and I'm not saying that just because it is owned by Gannet, the same company that owns this newspaper).

This is quoted from a story by Laurent Belsie about Ohio governor Bob Taft printed in The Christian Science Monitor (one of my favorite papers for international and social trend news). "According to the best estimates, somewhere between 1 in 4 and 1 in 5 adults functions at the lowest level of literacy. Most of them can read a little. They can sign their names and find the expiration date on their driver's licenses. But they can't fill out the application for a Social Security card or find an intersection on a street map."

At least the ones with just a bit better comprehension can read some of the more popular newspapers, and reading is always better practice for the mind than watching television (which is not to imply that televiewing requires any sort of practice). By the way, according to the grammar checker in my word processor, this column lies between 8.0 and 9.2 grade level for reading comprehension (or what I prefer to call information density).