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Since 1983, more than 10 million Americans reached the 12th grade without having learned to read at a basic level. In the same period, more than 6 million Americans dropped out of high school altogether. – A Nation Still at Risk, U.S. Department of Education, 1999

We often quote the statistic that 1 in 5 children can’t pass a basic reading test at the age of 11. What is unstated – though obvious – is that most of these children grow up into teens and adults who struggle equally hard with their reading and spelling.

Illiteracy has personal and societal costs in the long run that cannot be ignored. Let’s consider a bright 11-year-old who is struggling to read and spell. He feels unmotivated to do his work since the text on the page is indecipherable. Even in his mathematics class where he has natural ability, he is stymied by word problems and written directives. He continues to fail until dropping out of school at age 16. He manages to find low-wage employment where his low literacy is no bar to entry. He soon grows bored, with his natural intelligence not stimulated. Perhaps he considers – or engages in – crime and spends time in prison. When he finds new jobs he loses them when boredom leads to poor performance. He needs government support to survive periods of unemployment throughout his life. As he is locked out of the world of information, he makes poor decisions about his diet, health, and financial planning. He has lost sight of the child who wanted to learn and thinks of himself as unintelligent and worthless.

This picture may seem like an exception rather than the rule for children who fail to read. But in fact the National Adult Literacy Survey in the US estimated that illiteracy costs “more than $17 billion per year as a result of lost income and tax revenue, welfare, unemployment, crime and incarceration, and training cost for business and industry.”

Perhaps it’s time we sat up and paid more attention to those 11-year-old boys and girls who lag behind their peers.


Sarah Forrest is an Easyread Coach with Oxford Learning Solutions. Easyread is an online phonics course that help kids with dyslexia, auditory processing disorder, and highly visual learning styles who struggle with spelling and reading problems. Find out more at