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The Lifetime Effects of Poor Literacy

by Sarah Forrest | 16 October 2018
When children struggle to read, it can feel devastating in the moment for them and their families. The psychological effects of falling behind does leave an emotional mark, not to mention the impact of reading difficulties in seemingly unrelated subjects like math and science.

The more far-reaching impacts of low literacy paint a challenging picture. These numbers, a few of which show below, are the reason that we do what we do here at Helping Children to Read. They keep us up at night, and get us out of bed in the morning.

Overall public cost of poor literacy

The Every Child a Chance Trust analyzed UK governmental data on the costs of illiteracy — from things like lost tax revenue from weak income, special education classes, mental health support, and the criminal justice system (about half of prison inmates in most English-speaking countries are functionally illiterate.) The Trust estimated that the annual costs to the public fall between £198 million to £2.5 billion — and remember, that is every year.

Annual healthcare cost of poor literacy

The United States’ numbers are staggeringly high, though a bit harder to pin down due to population size. A 2003 Department of Education report found that 40-50% of American adults have low literacy that impacts daily life.

The Low Health Literacy Report, published by a public health research group at George Washington University, analyzed the data relating to healthcare alone. If you can’t read a prescription, or doctor’s instructions, or test results… there are implications not only for your health, but the cost of your care. The GWU report estimated that the cost of not being able to read health-related information runs to at least $100 billion a year. This number does not include other public-sector costs, like adult education classes or wage loss.

Wage loss effects

In one study of low-literate 37 year olds in Britain, researchers found that more than 20% of men who were long-term unemployed were functionally illiterate. And low literacy skills were, not surprisingly, tied to very low wages. Completing a job application, spelling in any written work, reading instructions from their superiors… all of these were insurmountable tasks to the adults surveyed.

Psychological effects

The same study above found a higher number of people with literacy struggles had self-reported depression. In particular, women with low literacy were five times as likely to struggle with depression as those without. And interestingly, literacy instruction has been shown to actually decrease depression in this group of people, due to increased self-efficacy and confidence.

Intervene early

As a parent, it can be difficult to read about the lifelong effects if you have a struggling learner now. But the good news is that there is plenty of help available — and time to get it right. If you intervene when children are still children, then these effects never come to pass. Struggling readers can reach their full potential, with a book in hand, if they get help early on.

Our mission is to see every child read and spell with confidence and accuracy, so that they never count themselves in these statistics. In fact, we believe that the TVP approach has the power to actually change these numbers forever.

Sarah Forrest is an Advisor for David Morgan Education, and contributor at Helping Children to Read. After studying Spanish literature at Yale University, she worked at Easyread HQ in Oxford, England for 4 years. She now lives in the sunny south of the United States with her two children, where she loves coaching parent and children through pictophonics.

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