Falling Literacy Rates Part 1

How Parents and the Pandemic are Shaping the Future

girl reading english alphabet

When most people think of “literacy rates” they immediately think of children reading books, but even something as simple as the idea of seeing little kids and adults reading together is disputed in 2022.

Some argue that literacy rates in the United States (and the world for that matter) are astronomically high compared to 200 years ago. For this, our education systems deserve a round of applause.

Others say that due to many circumstances working in tandem with one another, literacy rates have started a slow and even decline, particularly among children. Unless things change soon, they fear this trend will continue. 

So who is right?  In a way, both sides are correct.

Oxford defines the term ‘literacy rates’ as:

The rate, usually expressed as a percentage, of people who are functionally literate, i.e., able to read simple instructions and local newspapers.


The meaning of “literacy rates” changes depending on the focus of the person looking at it. Is financial literacy the topic of discussion? Are literacy rates determined by age group or student grade level? Each of these will give you a very different result as to what “literacy rate” really means.

Another area of focus we can look at is the amount of reading people do in their free time,  which has steadily declined over the years as video entertainment has taken over popular culture. 

This will be an introduction to the topic of literacy rates in children and adults. We will first focus on the United States and then later we will examine the rest of the world. We will not only be focusing on raw numbers, but we will also focus on the habit of reading. How much a person reads daily is directly tied to their ability to read.

What follows is a general overview of a variety of topics dealing with literacy rates. Each topic will be further expanded upon in other articles that will be linked here when they are published. Make sure to sign up for email notifications so you don’t miss any of that future content!

First, let’s start with some good news.

Literacy Rates in the United States During the 1800s

It’s always a good idea to put things in complete perspective, especially when talking about a broad topic like literacy. 

America should be quite proud of itself. According to an article from the Foundation of Economic Education, literacy rates were quite high in America by 1840. In the North, the male literacy rate was between 91 and 97 percent. In the South, it was about 81 percent. 

For more information on the history of American education, please check out episodes 1 and 2 of The State of Education Podcast. Their companion articles can be found here and here.

By 1870, only about 20 percent of the American adult population was illiterate, unable to read and/or write. As a reference point, 80 percent of the entire black population was illiterate. The good news is that 100 years later, by 1970, the literacy rates between all the races in America were pretty much the same. 

All in all, we have come a long way in making sure that nearly all Americans have access to at least a basic education. 

man in gray shirt holding baby in white onesie

This is important for America’s position in the global economy since literacy rates have a direct correlation to GDP growth. As jobs become more and more complex, people who do not have basic reading skills get left behind. If a large enough population gets left behind, so does the country. 

For more background information on the establishment of the modern education system, please read The Factory Model: Does It Work? by One-Room Education. 

In terms of citizens having the ability to read and write, a lot is determined by how developed the country is. Literacy rates in the world were still relatively low during this time, and we will discuss this further in the following sections of this article.

Despite all Americans having access to free education, in 2020, it was found that 54% of Americans, from ages 16 to 74, are reading below a sixth-grade level

This is of course very troubling news. Because of this fact, newspapers have had to lower the readability of their articles so that the average person can read them. Many of them, such as BBC and MSNBC, now aim for a Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level of 6-7.

The Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level is a readability formula developed by Rudolf Flesch and J. Peter Kincaid in 1975. It assesses how difficult a text is to understand based on grade level.

To put things in perspective, New York Times articles have a Flesch-Kincaid level of 14.5, meaning you have to be in college to understand them.

But enough about adults. It’s time to shift the focus to the kids.

Pre / Post-Pandemic Literacy Levels


According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2019 almost two-thirds of children were not able to read at the recommended grade level.  

The inability of educators to properly teach phonics existed before the pandemic.

But before we tackle the causes of these unfortunate numbers, let’s reemphasize the difference between the ability to read and making reading a habit.

I have already shown the data that proves most Americans have the ability to read (even if only at a sixth-grade level). But new data shows that American children don’t read for fun, as entertainment, as much as they used to. 

The National Assessment of Educational Progress routinely gives a questionnaire to young students asking them how often they read for fun. The data shows that the numbers are at their lowest point since the 1980s. 

More than a quarter of students said they didn’t read for fun at all, while only 19% said they did on a regular basis. 

A child’s ability to read at grade level is directly influenced by how much reading they do in their free time. 

But the largest contributing factor to whether a child will enjoy reading at home is usually the parents.

photograph of a mother reading a book to her children

The reason you’re probably reading this article now is because you might be a concerned parent worried about the current state of affairs in education.

These days many parents look at schools as glorified babysitting centers. They drop the children off at school and then leave it up to the teachers and administration to handle everything from there. 

As far as helping their child learn basic reading skills, this is where it ends for many parents. 

Part of this is understandable. Our society has been set up in recent times where the mother and father both have to take day jobs. Both may be too tired to do anything with their child, let alone help them with reading and homework in general.

It is now a known fact that a large part of a student’s academic success depends on what happens in the home. According to this research article, daily homework help from parents was associated with improved academic achievement in children.

If you think that is a problem, the situation was made far worse due to the pandemic.


Were you aware that there was a kindergarten crisis around the country back in 2020 after the COVID-19 pandemic started? At that time, around 1 million children did not enroll in schools. 

Most of these kindergartners came from low-income homes. For example, Linapuni Elementary School in Hawaii had a 51% drop in kindergarten enrollment. Most of the parents of these students were immigrants who could not speak English. 

This is only part of the problem of course. Researchers now say that a third of K-2 students are missing their reading benchmarks. They have also been underperforming in national and international exams. 

Of course, many factors are responsible for this, from schools closing for long periods of time to using online learning as a substitute. 

Phonics can be defined as:

a method of teaching beginners to read and pronounce words by learning the phonetic value of letters, letter groups, and especially syllables.

Webster Dictionary

Many experts point to teachers’ inability to teach phonics as a primary reason for the decline; students are finding it increasingly difficult to link sounds to words seen on a page.

Even if the teacher was adept at teaching phonics, students had far less hands-on time with them due to the pandemic. 

Nearly everyone is aware of the large number of teacher vacancies in public schools during the first year and a half of the pandemic by this point. With all these events happening simultaneously, it is easy to see how our children could start falling behind. 

But as I mentioned earlier, literacy levels were already starting to fall even before the pandemic. Therefore, COVID should not shoulder all of the blame for this problem.

What Does the Future Hold if These Trends Continue?

There are two things to consider when talking about falling literacy rates in the United States: what it means for your children, and what it means for society. 

Firstly, lower literacy rates mean that large groups of people cannot participate in the new global economy as stated before. It will also be difficult for them to take part in their local government and community organizations. 

Secondly, and maybe most importantly, lower literacy skills translate into a lower quality of life. This means lower-paying jobs, which leads to a lower financial status. The best-paid jobs usually don’t go to the people who cannot read well. 

Also worth mentioning is that children who don’t read turn into adults who don’t read. These adults then have children who will not develop a fondness for reading since their parents don’t have it. 

We will go deeper into how literacy rates have fallen among American adults in Part 2 of this series; but the bottom line is that parents need to realize the power of reading themselves if they want any hope of it developing in their children.

More articles from this series:



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