Child Illiteracy in America: Statistics, Facts, and Resources

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A mentor reads to a group of children.

Literacy goes far beyond the ability to read a book or write a letter. Illiteracy can cause immeasurable damage to an individual’s emotional and intellectual development, and often limits a person’s ability to achieve a fulfilling and successful adult life.

Strong literacy aligns with the ways that individuals learn and socially interact. It forms the foundation for a lifetime of communication with family, peers, and employers. Ensuring strong reading and writing skills in the early stages of a child’s development is vitally important to preventing problems later in life, such as unemployment, societal disconnection, and even justice system involvement.

There are a number of ways that community members — including school and government officials, families, and friends — can combat child illiteracy. Social workers, teachers, and parents play a vital role in preventing and correcting illiteracy, and many resources are available to support their efforts. Promoting literacy in the home is especially important for communities facing social distancing measures and school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Child Illiteracy Statistics

Childhood literacy efforts are essential to reducing the rates of adult illiteracy. Some 36 million adults in the U.S. don’t have basic reading, writing, and math skills above a third-grade level, according to ProLiteracy. And adult education programs are insufficient to meet the demand for services. If literacy can be improved during childhood development, it opens new opportunities for individuals later in life.

The following statistics shed some light on the importance of childhood literacy:

Literacy Unpreparedness Entering School

  • Children of adults with low literacy skills are 72% more likely to be at a low reading level in school, according to ProLiteracy.
  • Two out of every 10 children enter kindergarten with skills two to three years lower than their grade level, and another two start school with a one-year disadvantage, according to the Children’s Reading Foundation.
  • Students who are behind typically make only one year’s worth of progress at each grade level, keeping them behind their classmates throughout school and making them more likely to repeat grades.

Lack of Grade-Level Proficiency

  • Some 34% of students are below basic reading level in the fourth grade, according to the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Another 31% are below the proficient reading level.
  • About 27% of eighth grade students are below basic reading level, per NCES. Another 39% are below the proficient reading level.

Child Illiteracy and Dropout Rates

  • Illiteracy is a major factor in whether adolescents graduate from high school. One in 6 high school students — or about 1.2 million teens — drop out each year, according to ProLiteracy.
  • Some 4.5 million young adults (aged 16 to 24) are “disconnected” — meaning they are not in school or working, according to Measure of America. These individuals often lack a high school diploma or GED.
  • Students who are behind when they start kindergarten make up the largest portion of school dropouts. These students have a less than 12% chance of attending college, according to the Children’s Reading Foundation.

Socioeconomic Factors Behind Child Illiteracy

  • Poverty plays a large role in whether children develop literacy skills during their early years. Some 22% of children in the U.S. live in poverty, according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Some 43% of adults living in poverty have low literacy levels.
  • About 80% of children living in economically disadvantaged communities will lose reading skills over summer breaks due to a lack of access to books and other resources, according to Reading Is Fundamental.
  • Ethnicity is also a factor. About 52% of Black fourth-grade children and 45% of Hispanic fourth graders score below basic reading levels, compared to 23% of white students, according to NCES assessments.

Additional Illiteracy Statistics

For additional information about child illiteracy statistics, explore these resources:

Adult Literacy Facts: Information on the state of literacy in the U.S. via ProLiteracy

“Poverty & Illiteracy in Schools”: Information on poverty and illiteracy from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer

School Readiness: Evidence on the importance of school readiness from The Children’s Reading Foundation

The Crisis: Statistics on youth dropouts and literacy levels from the American Youth Literacy Foundation

The Issue: Literacy facts and statistics from Reading Is Fundamental

The Nation’s Report Card: Results from the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress from the NCES

Youth Disconnection: Statistics on the number of young adults disconnected from society via Measure of America

Causes and Effects of Child Illiteracy

Childhood illiteracy is caused by numerous factors, but most often it is related to home environments. The level of literacy support in children’s living situations is influenced by income levels, employment status, crime and violence rates, regional location, and other factors.

Causes of Child Illiteracy

Some causes of child illiteracy include:

  • Family history of illiteracy
    • Childhood illiteracy is typically intergenerational. Parents and caretakers with a low literacy level are not well prepared to nurture literacy in children. Some 73% of children with undereducated parents (less than a high school diploma) live in low-income settings, according to Comic Relief US.
  • Lack of books at home
    • For families living in poverty, books are a luxury purchase outweighed by basic living expenses. More than half of families living in poverty don’t have children’s books in their homes, according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
  • Lack of attention to the importance of reading
    • Low-income parents are often disengaged from their children’s education, typically due to stress from financial and work insecurity, according to Literacy Partners.
  • Nonnative status
    • Many families that immigrate from other countries have difficulty adopting the English language. Of low-literacy adults, about 35% are non-U.S.-born citizens, according to the NCES.
  • Poor access to technology resources
    • Much of today’s schoolwork requires access to online resources, and students living in poverty may lack computer or internet resources at home.

Effects of Child Illiteracy

Children who have low literacy are more likely to get bad grades, have more school absences, and display behavioral issues. For children in school, poor literacy can make students feel incompetent, which can result in low self-esteem and isolation. A lack of childhood literacy also has a negative impact on adult life.

  • Illiteracy is connected to unemployment and low-paying jobs
    • Many Americans lack the literacy skills to fill out a job application. One in 5 adults struggle to read basic sentences and fill out forms, according to the Barbara Bush Foundation.
    • Low reading and math skills lead to higher rates of unemployment. During the spike of unemployment caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, unemployment rates were highest among individuals lacking a high school education, according to The Washington Post.
    • Illiteracy results in a lack of college education, creating a smaller base of intellectually skilled employees in the workforce. Globally, illiterate people earn about 35% less than literate employees, according to the World Literacy Foundation.
  • Illiteracy is a factor in the cost of health literacy
    • Limited health literacy, or the ability to obtain and understand health information, is closely related to an individual’s literacy level. Improving reading and writing skills can help improve individual health outcomes.
    • Health illiteracy can result in a decreased ability to access health services, complete medical forms, manage chronic conditions, and understand health risks.
  • Illiteracy is linked to higher rates of incarceration
    • Some two-thirds of students who lack proficient reading skills by the end of fourth grade end up in jail or on welfare, according to BeginToRead.
    • Some 85% of youth who are involved in the juvenile court system are classified as functionally illiterate. About 70% of inmates in U.S. prisons can’t read above a fourth-grade level, per BeginToRead.
  • Illiteracy has a negative impact on society
    • Low levels of literacy cost the U.S. an estimated $225 billion in workforce productivity losses, crime, and unemployment-related loss of tax revenue, according to ProLiteracy.
    • Illiteracy also results in expenses for federal and state welfare programs. A majority of welfare recipients are high school dropouts, and most food stamp recipients have poor literacy levels, according to BeginToRead.

Information on Illiteracy Factors

The following websites provide background information on the causes and effects of child and adult illiteracy, and why illiteracy is so prominent among certain socioeconomic groups.

Causes of Illiteracy: The Literacy Foundation of Quebec outlines the consequences of illiteracy.

Changing Illiteracy in the U.S.: Comic Relief US works to lower poverty and its ill effects through the Red Nose Day initiative.

Engaging Families in Health Literacy Improvement: The American Academy of Pediatrics works to improve health literacy in parents to improve child health.

Global Illiteracy: The World Literacy Foundation helps support global child literacy initiatives.

Literacy Statistics: Incarceration and Welfare: BeginToRead outlines the connection between literacy and socioeconomic conditions.

Parents’ Educational Involvement Fuels Children’s Success: This information from Literacy Partners discusses how parents influence child outcomes.

“This Is How Economic Pain Is Distributed in America”: This Washington Post article outlines unemployment trends during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Resources to Combat Child Illiteracy

Social workers and family members who want to help students gain stronger reading and writing skills should take advantage of the numerous resources available to support literacy learning. The number of online and digital literacy tools has grown, and there are numerous organizations that work to provide books to disadvantaged children.

Working to improve literacy in the home is especially important, as most students are unable to attend school during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many schools have switched to at-home learning structures in response to stay-at-home orders, putting immense pressure on parents to make sure that children achieve their education goals.

School districts are providing online learning support, including tools for students to keep learning over the summer months. Exploring school websites and getting in touch with teachers, counselors, and administrators is a good first step for caregivers and other concerned parties who want to enhance at-home learning opportunities.

Resources for Social Workers

Social workers can use their skills and connections to help curb child illiteracy and mitigate issues that may manifest in adulthood. Social workers can partner with and educate teachers and parents to improve literacy efforts.

The following websites and tools can help social workers develop concrete strategies that can be utilized in various socioeconomic conditions:

Books Build Connections Toolkit: Tipsheets and other resources for professionals and families from the American Academy of Pediatrics

Free Screening and Development Tools: Tools to screen children for literacy skills from Get Ready to Read

Practices Guides for Practitioners: Tipsheets and video guides promoting child literacy activities from the Center for Early Literacy Learning

Resources for Children and Families: An extensive list of online resources and tools, including COVID-19 coping mechanisms and at-home learning activities from First 5 Association

Websites, Downloads, and Videos on Literacy: A listing of tools to help develop literacy skills from the National Center on Improving Literacy

School-Family Partnership Strategies: A guide on how to develop a school-family partnership program to engage parents in learning from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL)

Resources for Parents

Parents are their children’s first teachers. Caregivers can encourage good reading and writing habits by reading to children during infancy and toddler stages. Parents can also name objects, follow along with audiobooks, and discuss stories and words with children. Alphabet games, picture books, and toys all encourage literacy.

In later years, it is important to give children access to books and writing tools, including via public libraries. Technology tools can be very helpful but shouldn’t completely replace books and writing by hand.

There are a number of online guides for parents who are looking to help their children improve literacy skills at home, such as:

Five Easy Ways: Methods for promoting literacy behaviors in infants and toddlers from the Maine State Library

Ideas and Strategies: Speech sounds, phonics, and other strategies from the National Center on Improving Literacy

Parent Resources: Tips, articles, and book lists for parents from Scholastic

Quick Guides for Families: Advice for families on literacy and encouraging reading from Reading Is Fundamental

Resource Library: Literacy engagement resources and tips from Reading Partners

These literacy tools can help parents improve child reading and writing skills:

Cookie: Free interactive games and activities designed by child experts and educators

Family Readers Phonics Method: Reading with a phonics learning method from BeginToRead

FUNetix: A mobile app for literacy development from the American Youth Literacy Foundation

Reading Games: Online and mobile games and printable activities from JumpStart

Rhyming Games: These rhyming activities from PBS Kids help with reading preparedness

There are also a number of organizations that provide free online books. Many of these organizations are stepping up efforts to combat child illiteracy during the COVID-19 pandemic:

International Children’s Digital Library: Free online books for families, including books in dozens of languages

Open Library: Free eBooks from the Internet Archive organization

OverDrive: Free eBook borrowing from thousands of libraries using a local library card

StoryPlace: Children’s digital learning library with free storytime activities and virtual live storytime programs

Storyline Online: Free videos of children’s books being read by celebrities

The Role of the Social Worker in Promoting Child Literacy

Social workers can take on a vital role in preventing and treating child illiteracy. Whether they work with child welfare organizations or school districts, social workers can fill the gap left by busy or underprepared parents and overwrought teachers.

Social work professionals need to develop strong interpersonal, problem-solving, and emotional skills to help guide educators and parents to promote child literacy strategies. A social worker is tasked not only with helping at-risk populations but also with raising community awareness of the challenges that these populations face.

Social Workers and Schools

School social workers work with their districts to design plans and strategies to improve students’ academic performance as well as their social development. These professionals may educate teachers on how to identify students who need extra help developing reading and writing skills. They can also help schools develop literacy programs and point them to literacy resources.

Students need to learn good study habits, self-discipline, and confidence in their abilities. When social workers have direct interaction with children, they can help with this by counseling students on organizational strategies and pointing them to helpful tools. They can also help evaluate students to determine if any learning disabilities or social challenges are present that may require special assistance.

Social Workers and Parents

School social workers can help strengthen the connection between parents and school teachers and administrators. School-family partnership programs that engage parents in a child’s education can help institutions improve grades, attendance, and graduation rates. For instance, social workers can organize a workshop for parents and staff to share strategies on improving literacy skills in the home and at school.

When conducting home visits, family social workers can observe roadblocks to literacy and work with parents to overcome these challenges. Social workers can point families to online resources and connect them with local libraries. They can also educate parents about child development stages and share strategies such as reading and talking to children starting in infancy.

Resources for Schools

Social workers can work with educators to provide students with the support they need to develop and hone reading and writing skills. They can also help connect schools with external organizations dedicated to combating child illiteracy.

There are many support organizations that provide literacy tools for schools and other organizations:

Barbara Bush Foundation: Provides training for teen mentor programs to help first- through third-graders improve reading skills

Believe in Reading: Provides grant funding for literacy programs

Junior Library Guild: Provides grants for school libraries and reading programs

ProLiteracy: Offers a list of literacy grants and funding options

Red Nose Day: Provides funding for early education programs to combat poverty

Save the Children: School-based child literacy programs for rural communities

The Children’s Reading Foundation: Conducts seminars and school learning programs

Free or discounted books for schools and other organizations working to combat child illiteracy:

Better World Books: Distributes book donations to schools and other organizations

Book Trust: National literacy program providing free books for Title I elementary schools

Families Learning Together: Cartons of books at discounted prices from First Book for qualifying organizations, as well as free downloadable activity guides

Nurturing childrens’ ability to read and write is key to the development of a successful and productive society. Parents, teachers, social workers, and other community members can play essential roles in preventing and correcting child illiteracy. Speak to one of our enrollment advisors to see how you can get your Online Master’s in Social Work.

Additional Resources:

Reading Rockets, “In Search of Free Books”

Reedsy, “The 20 Best Places to Find Free Books Online”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social Workers

We Are Teachers, “18 Free (or Cheap) Ways to Stock Your Classroom Library”