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Getting a read on illiteracy.

Getting a read on literacy

The level of reading skill required to hold a job and survive economically is rising rapidly. Demand for highly literate workers in the United States is outpacing the supply. Much of the responsibility for boosting literacy levels, as well as much of the blame for inadequate levels in the first place, is being placed on public schools.

But the current atmosphere of alarm over illiteracy and inadequate schooling "may be excessive," writes psychologist George A. Miller of Princeton (N.J.) University in the Sept. 9 SCIENCE. Most students with literacy problems drop out as soon as possible, he says; the schools are indeed unable to provide the special assistance they need. "For the vast majority of students, however, the schools are not failing," he contends.

This is not to deny what Miller calls the growing "semiliterate underclass," millions of mostly poor individuals with limited reading skills. Many cannot follow written instructions, take a driver's license test or answer a help-wanted advertisement. Work, when they find it, is usually temporary and poorly paid. To make matters worse, they are unable to prepare their children to suceed in school.

Research by educators and psychologists has laid a foundation for new teaching methods to counteract semiliteracy, Miller holds. Studies show reading comprehension involves more than combining letters, words and sentences into stories. Skilled readers use an array of prior knowledge to comprehend what they read, and employ various strategies to evaluate written text. Not surprisingly, no one achieves high levels of reading comprehension without many years of reading.

There are indications that some remedial programs, such as one in which seventh graders gradually learn to ask and answer questions about sections of a text, significantly improve reading comprehension. Yet it may be unrealistic to expect semiliterate adults to scale the heights of literacy, Miller says. He suggests teaching basic reading skills in the course of jobtraining programs. This involves "reading-to-do" -- looking up information that is applied to a job task and can then be forgotten. As tasks are repeated, the reading becomes easier. Reading-to-do has proved successful in technical training courses run by branches of the military, Miller notes.

"Educators may deplore the narrowness of such training," he says, "but literacy develops by reading, studying and learning. It can develop by reading task-specific materials as well as by reading history , literature and social studies."
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Publication:Science News
Date:Sep 17, 1988
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