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Literacy Challenges for the Twenty-First Century: Introducing the Issue

From: The Future of Children
Volume 22, Number 2, Fall 2012
pp. 3-15 | 10.1353/foc.2012.0013

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Advanced literacy is a prerequisite to adult success in the twenty-first century. By advanced literacy we do not mean simply the ability to decode words or read a text, as necessary as these elementary skills are. Instead we mean the ability to use reading to gain access to the world of knowledge, to synthesize information from different sources, to evaluate arguments, and to learn totally new subjects. These higher-level skills are now essential to young Americans who wish to explore fields as disparate as history, science, and mathematics; to succeed in postsecondary education, whether vocational or academic; to earn a decent living in the knowledge-based globalized labor market; and to participate in a democracy facing complex problems.

The literacy challenge confronting children, their families, and schools in the United States has two parts. The first is the universal need to better prepare students for twenty-first-century literacy demands. The second is the specific need to reduce the disparities in literacy outcomes between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and those from more privileged homes.

This issue of the Future of Children explores the literacy of America’s children and how to improve it. We begin this introductory essay by reviewing briefly why literacy is so important in today’s world and why the concept of literacy needs to be broadened to include a set of competencies that go well beyond the ability to recognize words and decode text. We end with a summary of the other articles in the issue and briefly consider what steps policy makers might take to respond to the urgent needs we cite.

The Growing Demand for Strong Literacy Skills

The “literacy problem” we address here is not that literacy has declined among recent generations of children. It is that today’s economy and the complex political and social challenges facing the nation demand more advanced skills than ever before.

The average reading skill of non-Hispanic white children from recent cohorts is remarkably similar to that of comparable children born in the 1960s, and the average reading achievement of recent cohorts of black children and Hispanic children is considerably higher than that of comparable cohorts born several decades ago. These points are illustrated in figure 1, which presents trends from the National Assessment of Educational Progress in the average reading levels of American thirteen-year-olds in the major race and ethnicity groups.


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Figure 1. 

National Assessment of Educational Progress Test Score Trends in Reading: National Averages for Thirteen-Year-Olds (Eighth Grade)

Source: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1971–2008 Long-Term Trend Reading Assessments.

Although the literacy of American children has not changed appreciably over the past forty years, the American labor market has changed dramatically. The change in the nation’s occupational structure is illustrated in figure 2, which displays the shares of workers employed in large occupational groups, arrayed from lowest wage on the left to highest wage on the right. The big declines between 1979 and 2009 in the share of workers employed in particular occupations took place in blue-collar jobs (for example, assembly line work) and administrative support (for example, filing). These jobs require workers who can read, but historically they have not demanded advanced literacy skills. Jobs have declined in these occupations because they can be and have been taken over by computer-guided machines or by workers in lower-wage countries.1

During those same three decades the demand for workers in higher-paid occupations, for example, in technical and professional fields, was growing. These jobs typically require postsecondary education or training, leaving workers with inadequate literacy skills competing for the growing number of low-paying service jobs.

Americans also need strong literacy skills to participate constructively in a pluralistic democracy facing complex domestic and global challenges, including a large national debt, global warming, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. There is no shortage of information about these challenges. Indeed, Internet searches turn up thousands of documents and opinions on every one. But sifting through the conflicting arguments and judging which pieces of...


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