The United States, as a whole, can be exceptionally proud of its literacy rate. We are, according to The World Factbook, among the most literate people in the world.
A whopping 99 percent of the entire population of this country has learned to read by the age of 15.
That’s not quite as good as the citizens of the Ukraine or Uzbekistan, but slightly better than the Austrians. We are equally literate as the good people Down Under, as the Irish and the Brits, and as our neighbors to the north.
People living in Norway and Liechtenstein are slightly more literate, at 100 percent, as are the people living in Andorra, Greenland and North Korea.
In Afghanistan, the literacy rate is 43.1 percent. In Iraq, it’s 78.5 percent.
Generally speaking, the literacy rate is lowest in African countries, including Nigeria (61.3 percent), Somalia (37.8 percent), South Sudan (27 percent), Togo (60.4 percent) and Zambia (61.4 percent).
So, in a comparison of the world, we’re doing pretty well.
And, if we compare Maine to the rest of the country, we're doing better than most.
Maine's illiteracy rate is 7 percent, which means 7 percent of the school-age or older population lacks basic literacy skills. That's better than Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut, and since New England — as a region — has one of the lowest illiteracy rates in the country Maine has a lot to be proud of.
Even so, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the illiteracy rate in Androscoggin County is 9 percent, which is a tremendous improvement over 20 years ago when the illiteracy rate topped 20 percent, but it still means that hundreds of people cannot read.
The illiteracy rate is 9 percent in Oxford County and 8 percent in Franklin County, both of which are also improved from 1992, but still higher than the state’s overall illiteracy rate.
We can do better.
Being able to read is not only about enjoying the latest New York Times bestseller or being able to select just the right birthday card for a favorite nephew. It’s a basic skill that allows us to function in society and earn a decent living.
It allows us to read what ingredients are in the foods we eat, what instructions our doctors provide for prescription drug use, how to decipher the instructions to build a child’s bicycle, or put together a newborn’s crib. Reading allows us to navigate our highways, to fill out a job application, understand a technical manual or compose a love note to a spouse.
Unfortunately, one in four children in this country grow up without learning to read. Many of them pick up the skill later, while others just make d0 without, or not.
According to child advocates, two-thirds of students who cannot read by the time they enter the fourth grade will likely end up in jail or on welfare when they become adults because they don’t have the language skills needed to apply for and perform a job and often turn to crime or rely on social services for basic survival.
Interestingly, about half of the nation’s fourth-graders self-report they like to read for fun. By the time these students are in the eighth grade, only 20 percent still do.
That may be because reading is considered a learned skill. Not just in learning how to recognize and pronounce words, but in learning to make reading a daily habit, which can best by done by seeing others in the household — particularly parents — regularly read.
That’s why the family literacy initiative announced Tuesday by LearningWorks is so important: it will bring reading lessons — through teachers and volunteers — to entire families in Lewiston, not just to school-aged children.
In families where parents do not read — no matter what language they speak — it’s often difficult for a child to do reading assignments, or any homework at all. So, they don’t. Or, when they do, they may not be doing it right because no adult in the home is able to help. That, then, leads to a child’s frustration in school and — very possibly — a dislike of reading and learning.
LearningWorks, in cooperation with the Hudson Foundation, which supports programs to assist at-risk immigrant and refugee youth throughout New England, and the Walmart Foundation, which provides millions of dollars in support of community programs throughout the country, will launch the Lewiston Literacy Program in January.
It started, according to LearningWorks CEO Ethan Strimling, when Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald approached him for help teaching immigrant families to read.
Lessons will be taught in teaching space available through the Lewiston Housing Authority and in family homes, in cooperation with the city's school department, and the partners hope to serve between 25 and 30 families in the first year.
One of the most enjoyable parenting experiences is reading with a child, whether reading to that child or having that child read to you. But it’s more than that.
To be able to read is to be able to learn, to succeed and to thrive. To be able to understand concepts and produce original ideas.
What more could we possibly want for our children?
While cliche, it is also true that these youngsters will become our work force. They will become our leaders and will shape our society in the years to come.
It is not simply our responsibility to ensure their literacy, it is our legacy.
The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.