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How Do Declining Literacy Rates Affect Information Literacy?
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Posted On May 21, 2024
Literacy rates in the U.S. are declining, which is placing today’s school-age children in crisis. In the wake of the pandemic, students are struggling to learn how to read and write, and the consequences of that struggle threaten to follow them well into adulthood and into the workforce. Looking at this decline as an information professional, I cannot help but wonder: How does this affect information literacy or other types of literacies?

An Intersectional Approach to Literacy Rates

To be able to examine fields of information and determine how the decline in literacy could possibly affect them, we need to understand why literacy is declining in the first place. In this particular case, when I speak of literacy, I am referring to the fundamental ability to read and write, as opposed to the way the word “literacy” is used in the context of information literacy.

There are many factors that interact simultaneously to lower the literacy rate, so we must take an intersectional approach to answer the question, accounting for such factors as a person’s identity, socioeconomic status, place of residence, familial history, and race.

What Factors Contribute to Lower Literacy Rates?

According to Literacy Pittsburgh, the myriad factors that go into a declining literacy rate include undiagnosed learning disabilities, loss of hearing or vision, lack of role models, poverty (which forces students to focus on their survival needs instead of their educational needs), violence (or a fear of violence, resulting in absences from school), moving schools during childhood, leaving school at a young age, and learning English as a second language. These are just some factors, not an exhaustive list.

The effects of these forces on literacy can be dire. Low or declining literacy can result in a limited ability to retain and understand essential information, higher unemployment rates, lower income, lower-quality jobs, and reduced access to lifelong learning and professional development. It can also begin a cycle of illiteracy as families place little value on education and reading, which leads to intergenerational transmission of low literacy and self-esteem.

The Role of Race and Class in Literacy Rates

When it comes to declining literacy, studies suggest that marginalized communities, especially communities of color, are affected most. The Education Trust cites 2023 statistics from the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), which states that “not even half (43%) of fourth graders in the U.S. scored at or above a proficient level in reading. And for marginalized students, the numbers are much worse: just 17% of Black students, 21% of Latino students, 11% of student[s] with disabilities, and 10% of multilingual learners can read proficiently by fourth grade.”

Poverty plays a key role in literacy as well. In 2022, The New York Times reported that a third of students in the youngest grades were missing essential reading benchmarks, which is a much higher percentage than before the pandemic began. For example, “In the Boston region, 60 percent of students at some high-poverty schools have been identified as at high risk for reading problems—twice the number of students as before the pandemic. …”

Identity factors, especially race and class, directly impact a student’s access to well-funded schooling, which in turn affects their literacy rates. Declining literacy in students today means declining literacy in future adults, which in turn potentially leads to a generational loss of fundamental literacy.

The Steep Cost of Literacy Rate Decline to Information Literacy

The ongoing decline in literacy rates threatens the very existence of other types of literacy, especially information literacy, which is defined as the ability to locate and understand varying types of information and use this information in an appropriate context.

Simply put, the ability to read and write is the foundation of information literacy as a skill and competency. One cannot exist without the other. Without literacy, there is no information literacy.

The costs of such a loss are immeasurable and potentially catastrophic to the fabric of civilization. Without literacy and informational literacy, all types of literacy suffer. Imagine a world with diminished or no civic literacy, coding and computational literacy, data literacy, financial literacy, geographical literacy, historical literacy, media literacy, multicultural literacy, scientific literacy, or technology literacy.

An Opposing View to Literacy Decline

Some suggest that this trend is more of a shift in literacy than a decline. Inside Higher Ed argues that with the nature of today’s technology, we are experiencing a shift in literacy from engaging with longer texts for longer time periods to shorter interactions with content that are more similar to “scanning and panning” than reading in a traditional sense. While this shift seems likely, especially among our older, more proficient population, it does not account for the growing decline among school-age children who are still learning how to read and write and lack that proficiency.

Whether that kind of shift is happening or not is not precisely the point. The fact remains that a greater number of our youth are struggling to learn and perform a fundamental skill that is necessary to the function of our society. With that alarming decline comes a corresponding decline in all types of information literacy where future citizens may lack the ability not only to read and write, but also to use and evaluate the steady stream of information that will play a critical role in our ultimate health and prosperity.


Xanthippe Pack-Brown is currently the serials collections specialist at the duPont-Ball Library and is hoping to pursue a degree in library science in the near future. They are fairly new to the world of information science, but they are excited to dive into new areas! They can be reached at xanthippepackbrown@gmail.com.

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