This week the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) reported the first rise in the number of adults reading literature since they began their survey in 1982. In fact, 16.6 million more adults reported reading literature (novels and short stories, plays, or poems) in 2008. And, the most rapid increase was in literature reading by young adults aged 18-24.
This same week the National Center for Educational Statistics finally released its 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy, reporting that roughly 32 million U.S. adults (nearly one in seven) lack Basic Prose Literacy Skills and aren’t able to read at all or can read only the simplest of messages.
What does this mean? How can more people be reading literature while so many other people are “functionally illiterate”?
It seems to me—and it’s spelled out in the NCTE/IRA Standards for the English Language Arts and in NCTE’s Definition of 21st Century Literacies —that reading is just one part of literacy. In fact, to be literate today one must read and write; speak, listen, and view; think critically, act creatively and collaboratively; and manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information.
When I look at the criteria for the National Endowment for the Arts study, I’m delighted that adults are reading “literature,” but I can’t help but wonder how many more adults might be reading nonfiction, reading webpages, reading images, doing important reading that doesn’t fit under the NEA definition of literature.
Then I think about those many adults who can’t read in English or who can only “locate easily identifiable information in short, commonplace prose text.” What will become of them? How will they function in a fast-moving world that relies on printed and graphic texts?/p>
And adults aren’t our only concern. In "Training Focuses on Improving Literacy,” NCTE president Kylene Beers says, “Our kids just aren't as literate as they need to be." I have to agree. With all they see and hear around them, many kids still have difficulty digging below the surface—deeply “reading” what the world has to offer them.
One way we can help is by gearing what and how we teach in class toward helping our students develop high level literacy skills that will serve them now and in the future. NCTE’s 21st NCTE Framework for 21st Century Curriculum and Assessment serves as a good guideline for how we might do this.