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Why illiteracy sucks so much, and what you can do about it

August 20, 2013

My church is a cool place. As part of its outreach, it’s working with one of the most difficult elementary schools in the Tampa area, starting by helping teach Kindergartners how to read. Why? According to our pastor, several states use fourth-grade literacy rates as the basis for projecting prison populations. A moderately exhaustive search of Google results failed to confirm that specific fact, but here are a few that aren’t far off:

  • A study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that students who aren’t proficient readers by third grade are four times more likely to leave high school without a diploma than those who read proficiently.
  • Seventy percent of prisoners fall into the lowest two levels of literacy.
  • More than 85% of juveniles involved in juvenile court proceedings are functionally illiterate and more than 60% of prison inmates are also functionally illiterate.
  • Inmates who get literacy help have a recidivism level of 16%, as opposed to 70% of those who don’t receive help.

The last three stats are from a newsletter published by the Nevada Department of Corrections.

Reading is more than fundamental, it’s vital to help you stay off the lowest rungs, or to climb up from them.

And yet, as a writer, illiteracy really isn’t part of my world. I work in a professional environment, where the biggest reading-related problem is the amount of e-mail I receive. My parents read to me when I was little, and my wife and I read to our kids when they were little. My son even taught himself how to read. Yet if you were to pick five people at random, one of them is likely to read at or below a fifth-grade level.

The Florida Writers Foundation (FWF) is the charitable arm of the Florida Writers Association and its aim is to boost literacy by “visiting elementary schools for reading days, sponsoring poetry contests, donating books to under-privileged schools, and contributing funds to middle school writing contests.

The FWF holds two fund raisers each October–the celebrity workshop the day before the yearly conference (this year, it’s on October 17 at the Orlando Marriott Lake Mary). This year’s workshop will be delivered by New York Times best selling romantic suspense author Mary Burton. Admission is $95 for FWA members and $115 for non-members.

The other fundraiser is the silent auction at the conference, from October 18-20. If you’re looking for gifts for your favorite writer, reader, or just a regular old person, you’ll find some great gifts during the auction.

In the final analysis, it doesn’t matter if you volunteer at your church, come to the celebrity workshop, bid on something at the conference, or just read to your kids or grandkids. Literacy is the key to having a chance to pursue all the other possibilities life in 21st century America offers. And though illiteracy may not personally touch your life, it’s out there. It costs us all money and the lives of people who don’t have to be swallowed by a life of crime and impossibility.

If you love to read or write, it’s a cause to get behind.


  1. August 20, 2013 8:23 am

    “just a regular old person”? Come on, Chris, not all of us old people are regular–even with prunes. My quirky style is as irregular as they come.☺ (But I do appreciate the many things Ms. Burton and her publisher are donating to Silent Auction to help FWF promote literacy. Thank you for enlightening us that not all are proficient readers.)

  2. Peggy Lambert permalink
    August 20, 2013 11:52 am

    That is a cool church. I taught adult reading in our county’s literacy program for a couple years. Although I was often frustrated by students only there by court order (they didn’t have a lot of incentive outside that order to be there), there were others who simply wanted to make up for what they’d missed early in their lives. I can’t tell you how many times I heard the phrase, “I wish I had done this ages ago.”
    Anything to get kids reading is a worthwhile endeavor.

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