Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Literacy Changes Lives

I found my son staying up well past his bedtime, a book hidden under his covers. With a stern voice, I reminded him that it was a school night.

“Can I finish this chapter? Pleeeeease?” he begged.

I pretended to deliberate. “Well . . . okay. But turn your light out right after that.” I closed his door. And did a jig.

My excitement went beyond him finding adventures between the covers a book. Something far more crucial was at stake: his future.

Literacy and Poverty
According to ProLiteracy, an organization dedicated to worldwide literacy, 70% of adult welfare recipients in the U.S. are illiterate, and nearly half of Americans with poor literacy skills live in poverty. The lowest two levels of literacy (as defined by The National Assessment for Adult Literacy) have a combined unemployment rate of 32%.

Life for the illiterate population wasn’t always this bad. Back in the 1950s, 60% of jobs required no advanced education—only common sense, muscle, and a good work ethic. Today only 20% of jobs require no education, and those jobs have low pay.

No matter what a child wants to be—doctor, movie director, artist, architect, teacher—they’ll need to read and write to get there. And they’ll continue to need those skills to keep their jobs as they communicate with colleagues, managers, and customers.

Literacy and Health
Being able to read a book or write a letter doesn’t seem to have much to do with your physical health, but the connection is big. According to ProLiteracy, illiterate individuals are 52% more likely to be hospitalized. They’re at higher risk for diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and certain types of cancer.

Illiteracy affects the entire family: uneducated adults are more likely to have children with poor health, for several reasons, like not knowing basic nutrition or being able to buy healthy food. Literate families understand germs and hygiene. They know the warning signs of illness, when to see a doctor, and what questions to ask, so they’re better advocates for themselves. They can understand medical forms, pamphlets, and prescription information.

A literate person is twice as likely to understand a disease and how to treat it as an illiterate counterpart. ProLiteracy reported that most diabetics with low literacy skills couldn’t identify a normal blood sugar reading—a deadly piece of information to lack. Those with low literacy skills are more likely to become sick—but they can’t afford medical care, and their costs end up being paid by the literate population.

The Next Generation
The same study showed that children and teenagers with illiterate parents have low grades. They exhibit anti-social behaviors, are more likely to drop out of school, and are at high risk for drug use and teen pregnancy. A parent’s attitude toward education—often a result of their own educational level—tends to be passed on, so their children don’t reach past their parents’ schooling.

But when parents were given literacy training, the negatives turned around: children’s grades went up, they made friends, they were healthier, they stayed in school, and their risk of deviant behavior dropped.

Literacy and Women
Women with poor literacy have an even tougher hill to climb, particularly in countries where educating girls isn’t valued. If an illiterate woman needs to work—and chances are, she does—she’ll earn 70% of the paltry amount an illiterate man on the same literacy level makes.

Educating women reduces poverty because of the many resources a woman brings home. Her family benefits financially and nutritionally, but she also has a tremendous influence on her children’s education and their future.

The higher a woman’s education, the better off her children are at every stage, from before birth (uneducated mothers have more pre-term births and infant mortality) through the school years (uneducated mothers pass on poor hygiene, poor health, and have children with low grades and high dropout levels). Children of uneducated teen mothers often repeat the cycle, dropping out of school and having their own children in poverty.

Latter-day prophets have long understood the need for education. In the early years of the Church, schools were one of the first buildings in any new city. Temples sometimes doubled as university classrooms to teach science, literature, and languages.

President Gordon B. Hinckley said, “It is so important that you young men and you young women get all of the education that you can. . . . Education is the key which will unlock the door of opportunity for you. It is worth sacrificing for” (“Inspirational Thoughts,” Ensign, Jun 1999, p. 2).

What You Can Do
As a parent, aunt, uncle, grandparent, or friend, you can make a difference.

  • Let kids catch you reading—especially if you’re male. When boys see only female role models reading, they sometimes get the message that reading is “girly.”
  • Read aloud to kids.
  • Volunteer at a school, library, or literacy center.
  • Read what they’re reading so you can talk about it.
  • Have a family or neighborhood book club for kids.
  • Visit the library. Check out books, attend story time, and get involved in events.
  • Make it fun. Don’t insist kids finish a book they find boring. Read a book and then watch the movie based on it. Talk about what you liked and didn't. Hear kids' opinions.
  • Listen to audio books.
  • Keep books where kids can reach them. They won’t be read if they’re out of sight or out of reach.
  • Encourage kids to enter reading and writing contests.
  • Use the Church’s literacy program. Often tutors from one ward will help individuals from another to maintain anonymity. Contact your ward literacy specialist for more information.
  • Donate. Schools and libraries can always use more funding. Donate money or books.

A community’s literacy affects everyone, for better or worse. Working to help the next generation learn and grow is one of the best things we can do for our future.