Big Question: Why are 43 percent of Americans barely able to read?

Low literacy can be a serious obstacle for people trying to interact with government bureaucracy or keep up in a high-tech economy. How did American literacy reach this state?

Curiosity contributor Bambi Turner examined the question and found some shocking answers.

In 2007, the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released the findings of the largest literacy survey in the nation's history, conducted in 2003, and the results were startling. Researchers discovered that about 11 million people, or 5 percent of U.S. adults, were completely illiterate, unable to significantly comprehend written English [source: NCES]. The study also revealed that 30 million Americans were performing below the basic literacy skills needed for everyday activities involving written prose. Another 63 million possessed only basic literacy skills (they could extract simple facts from a short newspaper article, for example, but wouldn't be able to understand a list of qualifications posted in an employment ad). If the demographics in the NCES study remain consistent, about 43 percent of U.S. adults can read only what is required to perform the simplest, most basic tasks [source: NCES].

Some of the decline in literacy rates can be attributed to changes in U.S. demographics. The NCES survey found that people over the age of 65 generally score lower than younger groups in literacy. As the U.S. population grows older and more citizens enter this age bracket, literacy rates may decline accordingly. An increase in native language diversity may also cause lower literacy rates. For example, the 2003 survey found that 8 percent of the U.S. population spoke only Spanish prior to starting school, up from 5 percent in 1992. Both factors could significantly impact English literacy rates over time [source: NCES].

Some suggest ineffective teaching methods are the true cause of declining literacy. Through the early 20th century, children were largely taught to read systematically, first by sounding out the letters of the alphabet, then by combining them to form sounds and words. This method taught children to read any word as if they were deciphering a code. By the later portion of the 20th century, most schools had switched to a "whole language" approach, where kids were taught to read entire words using visual and verbal cues. Critics argue that this technique only teaches children to memorize words they see frequently, but does not equip them with the skills they need understand words they come across in unfamiliar reading [source: Sweet].