Posted by: Francis Koster Published: October 17, 2012

America Scores 2nd in the World for Reading, yet 1 in 5 Cannot Read!

America Scores 2nd in the World for Reading, yet 1 in 5 Cannot Read!

by Francis P. Koster, Ed.D.

Imagine going to a family reunion and being asked about your kid's reading ability.

The answer is important, because American adults with the lowest levels of reading work only about 18-19 weeks a year, and earn less than $5,000 per year.

Reading literacy has three parts. The first is "Prose Literacy," or the ability to read things in a newspaper.  (Congratulations - you have "Prose Literacy"). Second is the ability to understand documents that have a series of boxes, such as a job application or a car loan application. Third is the ability to both read and do math inside a document, such as an income tax form, or a pesticide application record on a farm.

The International Adult Literacy Survey ranks countries' ability to read by sorting their adults into three groups - those who can read very well, average readers, and those who are really poor at it. In 2009, the United States ranked second only to Sweden in the world in the number of citizens in the "great readers" category. One out of every five citizens of the USA are "great readers."

At the same time, the survey also found about one out of five of our citizens fit into the bottom category, and that this group is growing in size.

If the top one-fifth of our nation excel at reading, and the bottom one-fifth (and growing) cannot read, this could contribute to future stress in society. We have to change something. Kids are a great place to start.

When you give a child a book, you also give that child a new identity - that of a "reader." Few gifts match that impact.  One study done in 2006 found that the average middle class kid had 13 age-appropriate books per child, but low-income kids averaged one book per 300 kids.

This problem is actually going to get worse as electronic books and E-readers replace books printed on paper. For economically challenged households, buying a Kindle or other book reader is difficult. And if they get one, chances are a 4 or 5 year old kid would not get their hands on it. Gone are the days of sitting side by side each reading different books.

Due to electronic downloads cutting sales, neighborhood bookstores have been closing by the thousands. Even if an adult wanted to buy a book for a child, it is now much less convenient - and most likely not spontaneous. This lack of hard-copy children's books results in a drying up of the "hand-me-down" book supply.

We can copy solutions to this problem which have been successful in other communities.

Books From The Heart ( is one organization that has tackled this problem successfully. They organize book drives to locate underused books already in homes, collect them, and distributes them to needy children. Their website has a manual on how to conduct a book drive, complete with timelines, draft letters to potential donors, and many other materials to make conducting a book drive easy by just following their recipe. 

First Book works as a facilitator between booksellers and publishers, the donors of money, and schools which receive the books. First Book obtains large quantities of books and distributes them to schools. Some of the books are donated; others are purchased through a pooled buying program which results in major discounts to participating schools. Interestingly, one of the constraints on program growth is the need for warehouse space to hold the enormous numbers of donated books. Since the program began, over 90 million new books have been distributed. Interested schools can sign up to receive books at their website, found at

There are many places where books can be donated with assurance that they will be put to good use, including Salvation Army, Goodwill and similar organizations.

Can you take those now-outgrown books you gave your kids and grandkids, and ask them to donate them? (Please - don't you do it - this is a great time to teach them how to be charitable.)  We all know that our nation is faced with problems. While some require national solutions, others can be solved on the local level. It is not the knowledge we lack. In many cases, it is leadership. What are you going to do about that?


Copyright 2012. All rights reserved.

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Francis P. Koster Ed.D.

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Francis P. Koster, Ed. D.

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