Today, 1 in 6 adults — approximately 35 million Americans — possess reading skills below the level of a fourth-grader. Studies show that adult literacy rates have not improved over the past 25 years, but many believe that this is still a marked improvement from where we were before the creation of the public school system. There’s a common misconception that Americans were illiterate before the 1830s. But in reality, that’s not quite true.

In fact, the answer to the question of how literacy rates have improved since the American Declaration of Independence is a little hard to ascertain. Although statistics are very much available, evidence of the figures back then are more difficult to come by.

Murky numbers

The inception of reading is hard to trace, which means that there is only so much that historians can understand for sure about literacy rates in the 18th century. Surviving handwritten letters, legal documents, book sales, library records, and the like offer some clues. But not only is evidence like this heavily skewed towards members of the population who can afford property, they can also be very unreliable. Back then, reading and writing were taught as separate skills, and not everyone who knew how to read was also taught how to write.
(Note: This vintage photo of the Library at the National Archives is in the public domain.)

However, the fact remains that the materials published and circulated back then indicate intense interest in the printed word. George Fisher wrote in his 1748 book The Instructor, “Tis to ye Press & Pen we Morals owe / All we believe & almost all we know.”

Patterns of literacy could also be inferred: more people could read in New England and the mid-Atlantic than in the South, and city-dwellers were more literate than those living in the countryside. Moreover, literacy rates in America were much higher than in most of Europe. The Foundation for Economic Education estimates that around 80% of men and 50% of women in New England were literate by 1776. These number quickly rose, and by the 1800s, only one in four Americans were illiterate.

The challenge today

Despite the advancements in education and technology, we still have miles to go before fully closing the literacy gap. Some 200 years after the establishment of the public school system, READ founder Jean Proffitt came to learn that 72,000 Richmond-area adults still lack basic literacy skills – with many having hidden their low levels of literacy from their loved ones all their lives.

Teaching adults to read comes with many hurdles. Empathy and patience are needed, because the embarrassment and fear of failure can be major hindrances. These are further compounded by economic and political issues, as low literacy can very well trap individuals and their families in a cycle of poverty. Access to quality education and crucial reading and writing skills is still very much restricted in this day and age, especially for underprivileged minorities and low-income families.

It is in this light that organizations like The READ Center are working to help alleviate these issues, with 68% of READ students coming from low income brackets. In ProLiteracy’s new report, The Case of Investment in Adult Basic Education, there is evidence that investing in adult education helps individuals, families, and the community. The study shows the long-term outcomes and benefits realized by adults who participate in adult education, including literacy growth, attaining their GEDs, higher voting activity, and improved income. Therefore, equipping adults with crucial reading and writing skills can send ripples of change not just in individual and family lives, but in entire communities.

In conclusion, although it is difficult to say with certainty whether or not literacy rates have improved since 1776, it is clear that there is still a lot more to be done. The ongoing literacy crisis can only be solved if members of private and public sectors work together to bring the gift of reading to those who need them the most.

Interested in helping out? Learn more about donating or volunteering at READ today.

Article written specially for
By Catherine Bell