US alarm over poor literacy

January 27, 2006

Fewer and fewer American university graduates, raised on watching TV and surfing the web, know how to read and understand a book, according to a new national study of 19,000 people.

The study, by the Government's National Centre for Education Statistics, found that only 31 per cent of graduates could read a complex book and extrapolate from it. A decade ago, the proportion was 40 per cent.

Some 3 per cent of adults, or about 7 million people, were nonliterate, meaning that interviewers could not communicate with them in English. Even among graduate students, only 41 per cent could read and understand information in short texts, including product labels, compared with 51 per cent ten years ago.

Mark Schneider, NCES commissioner, did not have a solid explanation for the figures. He suggested that while people had become more literate with computers and other technology, they were losing the ability to read.

About 13 per cent of all adults had below-basic literacy, meaning they could not do much more than read and sign a simple form.

Some 63 million had basic literacy - they could understand information in a pamphlet about serving on a jury. Ninety-five million had intermediate literacy - they could look something up in a dictionary or encyclopaedia.

The US already has a worrying lack of graduates fluent in languages considered essential to national security.

This month, George W. Bush launched a $114 million (£64 million) programme to expand the teaching of Arabic, Urdu and Farsi. The National Security Language Initiative aims to produce 2,000 advanced speakers of Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Hindi and Central Asian languages to enhance not only national security but cultural understanding.

The Defence Department alone needs 3,000 people a year with basic language skills, yet among university students, less than 8 per cent take foreign language courses and only 1 per cent pursue a degree in a foreign language.

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