Why Literacy Is a Fundamental Human Right

Literacy should be viewed as a fundamental human right anywhere in the world. Every person is deserving of the ability to read and write—the foundation of knowledge. Just looking at the United States, according to the Begin to Read organization, many of the problems affecting the country stem directly from illiteracy. Just a few statistics:

  • Literacy is learned. Illiteracy is passed along by parents who cannot read or write.
  • One child in four grows up not knowing how to read.
  • 43% of adults at Level 1 literacy skills live in poverty, compared to only 4% of those at Level 5.
  • 3 out of 4 food stamp recipients perform in the lowest two literacy levels.
  • 90% of welfare recipients are high school dropouts.
  • 16- to 19-year-old girls at the poverty level and below, with below average reading skills, are six times more likely to have out-of-wedlock children than their more literate counterparts.
  • Low literary costs $73 million per year in direct health care costs. A recent study by Pfizer put the cost much higher.

Teaching college in Illinois in the mid-90s, one of my classes was public speaking. A major assignment involved students writing a paper on a group project. What I found disturbed me greatly. Too many of the students didn’t know how to spell or compose a proper sentence. What stuck with me is that by the time I had them in class, it would be very difficult for them to read and write at levels to be successful adults.

When I served as a reading tutor at the East Side Learning Center in St. Paul, I saw firsthand that literacy is indeed learned. Each student had a weekly list where they were to check off who they had read chapters or parts of that week’s assigned books to. If they completed the task, they received a sticker of their choice. That first year, three out of the four students I had did very well. Two of them were so smart I wished I had enough money to pay their way through college. The following year, the students suffered from more behavioral problems—poverty, uninterested parents (or those who simply could not read themselves), or disinterest. None of these kids were dumb by any means, but I felt great frustration that I was failing them.

Health problems prevent me from tutoring one-on-one any longer. Instead I work behind the scenes as a writer, showcasing those tutors who have been able to teach these children the value and love of reading. In October I’ll attend Bouchercon, the world mystery convention being held in Dallas. Literacy is an important focus for the conversation this year. During the gala prior to the conference, the world’s best-selling author James Patterson, a passionate literacy advocate himself, will be the keynote speaker. Money will be raised for Literacy Instruction For Texas (LIFT), the Bouchercon charity chosen for 2019.

I look forward to continuing my work locally as well as getting new ideas in fostering literacy for all. Illiteracy is a vicious cycle destroying too many lives. Being a part of crushing that cycle is a goal I’m committed to.


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