Literacy Today: What is Wrong and How Can We Fix it?

Oregon Senate Hearing Presentation, February 2001
by Wanda Sanseri

I’m holding magic in my hands. (I held up a stack of cards.) Before I finish my speech you’ll understand why.

An Undervalued Language

Most of us do not appreciate or properly value our language. We’ve been told English is illogical, irregular, and filled with endless exceptions. We flounder teaching spelling and reading. I have transformational news. English is NOT as perplexingly difficult as we’ve been led to believe. With the information in my hand, just 98 cards, you can unlock most words in our dictionary. This news is particularly amazing considering the international significance of our language.

English is the most vital language in the world, the first truly global language. Over half of the people who use English do not speak it as their mother tongue. English has the richest vocabulary on the planet. The modern Chinese dictionary has about 12,000 entries. The French vocabulary less than 100,000 words. But the Oxford English Dictionary lists 500,000 words! (McCrum, p. 19).

While the world values English as a key means to personal advancement, a growing number of native English speaking people have trouble recognizing words in print. With the most highly funded educational system in the world, we assume everyone can read. We find it hard to believe that 30% of high school graduates cannot read the warning on a can of Drano®, fill out a job application, interpret a bus schedule, or decipher the menu in a restaurant. The reports of massive illiteracy do not ring true because most of us do not think we personally know anyone with this problem. The chances are that more than one of your friends struggles with the language but tries to pretend otherwise. Non-readers in a culture such as ours do not broadcast their handicap. Victims of this subculture go to great lengths to disguise their secret.

Consider John Corcoran, author of The Teacher Who Could Not Read. This award-winning high school instructor could not read the sign on the bathroom door to know if it said men or women (Corcoran, 1994). Jonathan Kozol in Illiterate America, describes a well-dressed draftsman who carefully places a fresh edition of The New York Times on his desk at work each day just to appear informed. At night he trashes the paper he cannot read (Kozol, p. 3). Ones you least expect, the student next door, the mechanic who repairs your airplane, or the CEO at your company may be part of this invisible but growing minority.

I would have trouble comprehending the severity of the situation, if I had not witnessed epidemic academic failure in the classroom and with various highly intelligent adults who have over the years come to me secretly for help.