Posted by: chartroose | May 27, 2008

The Devolution of Literacy

First, I feel the need to start off with a little self laudation.  Throughout my life, I have consistently tested in the highest percentiles on all portions of standard-ized tests related to reading/writing.  I was in the 98th percentile on the ACT verbal, and I scored a 786 out of 800 in the GRE verbal section.  I took the Miller Analogies test as an undergrad for fun, and ended up in the 96th percentile.  Now, before my head explodes because I’m so incredibly cerebral, I must state that my math scores on the ACT and GRE were below 50%.  That’s right, I’m a drooling idiot when it comes to math.  If it weren’t for my outstanding verbal scores, I wouldn’t have been able to get into college or grad school at all!

So, ever since this blog got those despised “elementary school reading level” and “junior high school reading level” ratings, I’ve been doing some heavy-duty thinking about the state of literacy in the U.S.  If I’m writing at a 7th or 8th grade level, then at what level does the average high school graduate write?  Does the average high school graduate write?  Does he read?

As it turns out, hardly anybody reads (or writes).  Here are some statistics compiled by the National Endowment for the Arts.  I’ve heard some of these before, but others are new to me.  These are 2002 statistics, so they’re probably worse now:

  • Only 67% of college graduates read for fun – EVER!  Out of those 67%, only about 25-30% read fiction on a regular basis.
  • About 1/3 of adult males read literature.  Most of the rest of them drink beer and watch Jackass reruns during leisure time.

(Johnny Knoxville, 2003)

I knew all that stuff already.  What I didn’t know is that proficiency levels have dropped significantly as well.

  • Nearly 50% of U.S. adults cannot read well enough to find a single piece of information in a writing sample, nor can they make inferences or connections based on what they read.
  • Only around 1/3 of high school seniors read proficiently, with a reading score of 302 or higher (out of 500).
  • Among college graduates, reading proficiency has declined a whopping 20-25%.  The average reading score for someone with a Master’s degree is now 327 (out of 500).

Out of those people who did read in 2002, only 12.1% read poetry.  7.1% practiced personal creative writing.

It’s pretty scary isn’t it?  Not only are we not reading much at all, but a bunch of us who are reading are not comprehending what we read.  No wonder Harry Potter is so popular among grown-ups!  We can’t understand or enjoy anything more complex.

That’s it! I’m going to find a list of the most “literate” fiction out there and take a stab at a couple of those novels.  Marcel Proust, here I come!  (Well, on second thought, maybe I’ll stick to Ken Follett).



  1. Very interesting post. Lost of information there that I didn’t know. I know my writing skills could be sharpened and I’ve wanted to do some creative writing but just haven’t taken the time to do that. My math skills are terrible too. I wonder what these stats would be for Canada, I should look those up.

  2. You know, I have the feeling that Canadians are more literate than Americans. I know a few Canadian transplants, and all of them are erudite and intelligent.
    On the other hand, I could be totally wrong, because Canada’s a big place, and I’m sure it has its share of “unwashed masses” too!

  3. Those are some crazy stats! Kind of depressing too, but at least all of my friends are literate. lol

    I’m great at verbal standardised tests too-when I studied for the GRE a couple years ago, I had to study my butt off for the math, but didn’t worry at all about the verbal. I still can’t believe that GRE averages indicate students from every background (humanities, etc.) do better on the math than verbal.

  4. Eva–Do they really test higher on math? Geez, math is so totally foreign to me. Does this mean we’re right-brained or left-brained?

  5. Ugh, that is scary. And depressing. I think I’ll go read some poetry.

  6. Julie–I think I’ll join you!

  7. Count me in on the poetry thing, too! I know I have “The Complete Christina Rossetti” around here somewhere. . .


  8. Yay Lezlie! Christina Rossetti’s poetry is so moving. I should read her again as well.

  9. Those statistics are always so depressing – I’m sure the UK is exactly the same. I would interview students for a literature course at university and ask ‘What do you read?’ and they’d reply ‘Oh well, I never seem to get much time….. but I read all my set texts for my exams right to the end!’ That was really depressing too. But do try Proust one day – he’s lovely, and very relaxing.

  10. Those grade-level assessments, though . . . I mean, they’re kinda BS. The Flesch-Kincaid is included in most word-processing programs; I used to run it all the time in Word Perfect. If I remember right, something by Hemingway had a 7th-grade reading level, while the Gettysburg address had a high-school reading level.

    To really crack into the “upper” realms or get beyond a high school level, you know what the assessment comparison was?

    A W-2 tax form.

    Just because people are reading “higher” doesn’t mean they’re reading better. I’ve read both Proust and Potter, and I think the latter was way better. It’s certainly more fun.

    By the way, not sure if it was part of the statistics or a side comment, but I resent the Jackass comment.

  11. litlove–it’s pathetic that people use the excuse of “not enough time” for neglecting to read. We know that’s not true! Why do so many college (and younger) students treat reading like a despised chore–like taking out the garbage or scrubbing behind the ears? This is incomprehensible to me. Do you have any idea about why they feel this way? I have been thinking about Proust lately. I think I need to explore him a bit more. I want to read something beautiful again.

    Will–ahem, the “Jackass” comment was my feeble attempt at humor. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not all that crazy about men (unless they’re ginger haired), but don’t worry, I’m not too crazy about women either. You’re an exception, of course! You’re right about Harry Potter as well. I enjoyed the books, although the last one made me very angry. I’ll have to blog about that later.

  12. I think it makes us right-brained. And that’s why you can score pretty high on the math side and still be in a lower percentile.

  13. If I had only known at 16 what I know now I would have taken more time reading. In High School and College reading is close to a chore; how many people actually like being told what to do or what to read? At least Harry Potter made the younger generations WANT to read something longer then a comic book. If the same passion people have for the Potter series could be parlayed into other works of literature then maybe the statistics would not be so abysmal.

    I found your post through the Sphere service, which linked our posts. I think we’re all at risk of losing our reading and writing skills as we tailor our communications to the lowest common denominator. I can write at college level and beyond but must consider who is reading my work and downshift accordingly.

  14. Hi Bombchelle!
    It’s nice hearing from someone new! You’re right, nobody wants to be told what to read. I’m just kind of shocked that there are hardly any people that seem to want to read at all. How do they fill their leisure time?

    Now that I think about it, I’m glad I don’t write at the college level because maybe I appeal to a larger audience. It still kind of hurts my ego, though. Isn’t that dumb?

  15. I’m amazed you know your scores on those tests. I used to have them written down somewhere but long gone now. Good enough to get into college, I guess…

    Well-researched, well-written, enjoyable to read post, btw!

  16. Care, I don’t know why you’re amazed, since it’s an ego thing for me, and we all know I have an overly healthy ego! Some things are just SO IMPORTANT they must be memorized (and itemized) immediately!

    I feel like I’ve been neglecting you, so I’ll be heading your way soon ( :

  17. I can honestly say that yes, Canada has it’s share of “unwashed masses.” I was a teaching assistant for a few years at the local university here, and the level of reading, writing and comprehension of some of my students was totally abysmal. The hardest thing I learned when I came online was to tone my writing down to a sixth grade level, because that’s what most people read and comprehend at. Scary stuff.

    There’s so much good reading material out there that people really don’t know what they’re missing and that saddens me too. Just as an example, you mentioned that you’re off to read some Ken Follett. If you like Follett, there’s a new author, Ellis Goodman, that should pique your interest. He writes in a similar style — family saga, espionage, great historical detail — and his first novel Bear Any Burden is one of the best thrillers I’ve read this year.

    Thanks for a great post, and the opportunity to write a somewhat coherent (I hope) reply.

  18. Funny you should mention “Bear Any Burden” by Ellis Goodman – I picked up a copy at the Chicago Printers Row Bookfair this summer, where he was a panelist.

    I read it and thorougly enjoyed this novel. It is a compelling family saga, suspense story, thriller, and romance all in one. I felt that the story moves smoothly back and forth between the eras. I would highly recommend for anyone interested in the mystery – espionage genre.

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