literacy.jpegAmerica is facing a steep decline in literacy, a problem that is reflected in publishing companies and in educators. The decline in literacy is a result of the decline in publishing excellence and the lack of literacy skills in educators whose function it is to teach literacy skills.

Normalizing deviance, a phrase coined by Alejandro Sanchez in a different context, accurately — and unfortunately — connotes what I consider the paramount problem in the world of books, newspapers, and magazines. The paramount problem isn’t too many publishers, too many books, too much greed. The paramount problem is too much illiteracy and the acceptance of declining literacy as being the norm.

Think about the changes we have seen in education in the past 60 to 70 years. When I went to college, it was assumed, even required, that I have reading, writing, and comprehension skills. There was no such thing as a remedial writing or English course. Today nearly all colleges have remedial reading and writing classes for incoming students. This shouldn’t be!

What is the difference between then and now? It is hard to pinpoint with laser precision, but I believe the root cause is a growing illiteracy among all social classes, especially among educators whose responsibility it is to raise students from illiteracy to literacy.When I was in elementary school, we were required to read our local newspaper every day and in class we would discuss the writing of the article, look for misspellings and misuse of homonyms, identify antonyms, rewrite paragraphs for clarity, and show that we could understand the article. This was built into the curriculum and forced us to become literate, whether we wanted to be literate or not. This didn’t change when I moved up grades. The newspaper changed from our local paper to The New York Times and the approach changed, but the fundamental purpose didn’t change: We were taught to be literate.

Today, education is less focused on literacy as a goal in and of itself than on getting past the next test. This is reflected in the literacy quality of teachers. Yes, there are some outstanding teachers just as there are some exceptionally poor teachers. But most teachers are neither outstanding nor poor — they are mediocre and their grasp of the fundamentals of literacy is also mediocre.

Publishers compound the problem by setting the written standard. Publishers accept less-than-stellar editing because it fits their bottom line. But by accepting something less than quality editorial work, they encourage the lowering of the literacy standard. Publishers want to fight illiteracy but only as a public relations tool, not recognizing that as literacy declines so do their fortunes. Publishers are looking for gimmicks to increase sales instead of working to improve teacher and, ultimately, student literacy, thereby creating an audience for their publications. A person whose literacy is third grade level is not a person who will read The New York Times or The Economist, and is unlikely to be a frequent book or magazine buyer. Publishers and educators need to set an example for higher literacy, not lead the charge to lower literacy.

Publishers aren’t fighting for their future audience; instead, they bemoan the decline in readership. Publishers encourage this decline, for example, when they hire editors by price rather than by skill, when they publish error-ridden books and shrug off any criticism, and when they do not require their books to meet anything more than a very minimal level of quality.

Educators encourage the trend by not requiring every teacher, as part of their certification process or graduation requirements, to demonstrate a high level of literacy. Every teacher should be required to demonstrate a literacy level at least at the 10th grade level, if not higher. Literacy equals understanding; the less literate one is, the less one can understand. We don’t have to look far to prove that proposition.

Perhaps the time has come to rethink where society is heading and reemphasize literacy as the ultimate goal of an education. Publishers need to set an example by requiring their end product to have high literacy quality; educators need to rethink their teaching to emphasize literacy skills in students and to redesign teacher-education programs to make teacher literacy the core of the teacher’s education. In the end, society as a whole will benefit. We should no longer accept mediocrity as the acceptable standard for future generations.

Editor’s Note: the above is reprinted, with permission, from Rich Adin’s An American Editor blog.


  1. Lots of bloviating, not a fact in the whole piece.

    It’s a bunch of ‘things were better when I was a kid’ blather. It neither addresses a problem nor offers a solution.

    In actual fact, kids are reading and writing more than ever. They’re just doing it online.

    Digital is replacing paper, but we all knew that already.

    Why don’t you turn your mind to a *real* problem?

    Oh, and I’m in my 50s, and when I was in college, I tutored other students in remedial reading and writing classes, so I don’t know where you went to school. There probably were remedial classes, you just weren’t aware of them.

  2. I suspect that true problem for publishers is a rise in the number of vessels for entertainment or information that compete with books, rather than a decline in literacy.

    When I was a child, in the 60s, besides the bountiful world of books, there were a very limited number of television and radio stations, a handful of movies (only in theaters or broadcast), and the relatively expensive, broadly focused records, newspapers and magazines.

    Books were easily able to hold their own in that environment. But now, there are so many more types of competition: games, email, apps, surfing the web, online reference sites, . . . And in the old fields, there are so many more entrants, available more easily, and in more formats.

    And, while the inflation-adjusted price of books has not been declining, the real price of most of the rest has been declining drastically.

    One last point: even if Mr. Adin is correct, blaming our customers isn’t going to help us survive. We need to find a way to compete better, even in that case.

    (And, if we do, the problem with literacy standards will probably fix itself!)

  3. I am going to have to weigh in here on the side of defending the educational establishment. As a student teacher I believe the problem with literacy has little to do with drills and repetition or for that matter any given teacher’s literacy acumen. The root culprit may be a lack of emotional attachment to proper grammar. Teachers today struggle to make the material they teach relevant to their students not because they are any less capable but because the world that they operate in is inherently more complex. I do not mean to be condescending -so forgive me if I come across that way- but students today are radically different than their peers of even a decade ago. I have had a chance to interact with students of all ages and find their curiosity to be limitless. Its the authors and publishers who are at fault here; consumers still know quality when they see it. Lets not forget that Kindlers have been leading the charge against crappy editing and formatting. The future threats being posed come from the top not the bottom, a society is after all is only as smart as its best scholars.

  4. I think that Mr. Adin is partially correct. However, the issue is more complex than he makes it seem.

    Reading is a skill and you need to practice it. Just like anything else sports, music etc, if you start them young, they’ll master it! I think the weakness in our educational system is really at the pre-school – 2nd grade. A more robust approach to teaching reading and comprehension skills at that level, later results in students who are both comfortable with reading and are interested in literature in general. They have to parents who buy them books, who take the time to understand and learn their interests as well as expose them to classics. Since that can be expensive, they need to have access to well stocked libraries and skilled librarians. Unfortunately, a lot of children especially inter-city children do not even know where their local library is, much less have ever been exposed to its quality. Responsibility should be laid upon parents to encourage and expose their children to a variety of media. I think that recent generations simply have easier access to TV and the internet. It’s at home right there and always available. Let’s be real here what’s on television and the majority of what is written on the internet is NOT the NY Times. If this ereader boom we are seeing right now leads to having access to literature in this manner and parents make an effort to take advantage of that, I think it will go a long way to improve literacy in students.

    Old vs New:
    Our language isn’t static and just like in music, its evolution is fueled primarily by the youth. The average 14 yr old has a completely different vocabulary than your average 54 yr old and it is valid and “correct” for THEM in addressing their peers. They read and respond to things that are relevant and interesting to them using THEIR vocabulary and using the internet and technology that they find second nature. Being literate on the internet and being literate in the traditional sense are two different things. It’s the old vs new problem. Younger generations do not want to be associated with what they consider to be outdated. The internet has allowed them to evolve their own eco-system of media. So perhaps when in the past, to succeed you would need to eventually learn and communicate formally, they don’t have to. They don’t have to refer to or buy the NY times or The Economist to get access to that information. They’ll just post on Yahoo answer. The traditional perception of quality doesn’t enter into the equation for them. They don’t CARE that they’ll get an answer in contorted English. What I’m trying to say is that the way they communicate is different, not bad or better, different. I’m not suggesting that we abandon the formal grammar and rules of our language but that we focus our attention in highlighting the importance of preserving it. Looking down on or scoffing at how kids communicate does much to alienate them and nothing to spread or increase their literacy formally.

    Books like the Twilight and Harry Potter series prove that children will read, if the content feels relevant to them. I think that here is where the publishers responsibility really lies and that Mr. Adin is correct. They need to care about the quality of what they are producing, even it is not something as lauded as the NY Times. Consumers on the other hand need to care too! If The Economist produced a shoddy issue, the letters to the Editor would certainly reflect that. So who is buying all these poorly written books? We are. I think that cases like the Kindle users demanding a way to respond to poor quality is definitely the right approach. You vote with your wallet.

    Younger generations can’t read Shakespeare partially because they aren’t exposed to it outside of the context of testing and because it simply isn’t accessible using the tools that they use to communicate. It’s not cool– it’s seen as OLD, outdated, irrelevant, boring. That’s a cultural attitude that is learned from a really young age. We need to think about how we can change that. The truth of the matter is that if you get this exposure right, evolving with new media and integrating traditional content, you’ll get a loyal and literate readership…

    …I think, could be epic tho amirite?! 😉

  5. you lost me at the “when i was in college” argument. as access to higher education has expanded tremendously (a great thing) there’s of course been a corresponding expansion in the range of skills incoming students have.

  6. As a former public school and college teacher, I’d say one of the main problems with kids reading is that education wants to suck all the fun out of it. First, get the kids loving the books, no matter what kind of book, then worry about their comprehension.

    One horse book taught me the love of reading. From that book to all horse books to animal books to novels to nonfiction to a literature and teaching degree to a Masters in literature to most of a PH.D to a writing career and a teaching writing career.

    As to the quality of editors, I don’t think it’s the editors, but the nature of editing today. The conglomerates want the editors to handle so many tasks and so many books that the editing gets very short shrift. “Faster, faster, more books, more books, cheaper, cheaper” is the mantra of conglomerate publishing these days, not “great books, great editing.”

    Some children’s publishers do great work giving away books and funding children’s literacy programs, and the Romance Writers of America raises lots of funds for adult literacy. A pity more in publishing don’t become involved in programs like this.

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