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Traditionally, literacy has meant the ability to read and write. As the cognitive skill requirements of work and daily life have increased, the definition has expanded. In the National Literacy Act of1991, the US Congress defined literacy as ”an individual s ability to read, write, and speak in English and compute and solve problems at levels of proficiency necessary to function on the job and in society, to achieve one s goals, and to develop one s knowledge and potential. Consistent with this, the National Assessments of Adult Literacy, conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, have measured literacy along three dimensions: prose literacy, document literacy, and quantitative literacy. Each was measured on a scale defined by the skills needed to succeed at daily and work tasks ordered from simple to complex.
Over time and across nations, higher literacy rates have been associated with higher levels of economic development. This is a well-documented pattern, which has been most thoroughly analyzed by economists under the topic of ”investment and returns to human capital.
What explains individual and group differentials in literacy, as measured by tests of cognitive skill and self-reports of educational attainment (number of years of schooling completed)? Both qualitative and quantitative studies point to parent-child interaction and children s oral language development during the preschool period as crucial for the creation of differentials in school readiness that strongly predict performance in early elementary school. Thus, the child s early literacy skill – oral vocabulary, grammatical usage, letter knowledge, and phonemic awareness (the ability to hear and manipulate the separate sounds in spoken language) – are among the principal predictors of success in first grade reading. Since scores on these variables tend to be lower for children from lower social class, African American, and Latino backgrounds, lower preschool literacy among these students predicts lower first grade reading attainment.
Nor does the process of differential literacy development end at this point. Lower-performing children have a higher rate of school dropout, and those who graduate from high school often go straight into the labor market. There they may encounter employers who consider their literacy and mathematics skills to be inadequate for the requirements of the jobs available. By contrast, higher-performing students typically undertake four more years of academic skill development in college, often followed by graduate-level or professional training. Then, when these individuals enter the labor market, they take jobs which themselves have a strong component of continued learning and literacy development. The result is a society composed of adults who, at least when we compare the top and bottom of the occupational hierarchy, are strongly differentiated on the basis of their cognitive skills, which are in turn correlated with their earnings.
- Baker, D. & LeTendre, G. (2005) National Differences, Global Similarities: World Culture and the Future of Schooling. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.
- Neuman, S. & Dickinson, D. (eds.) (2002) Handbook of Early Literacy Research. Guilford Press, New York.
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