Status quo, how it evolved, and where to go from here.


Illiteracy is increasing and over the next decades, the divide between the literate and a majority of illiterates will broaden even further. Those who are able to read and write -- long form that is -- will be the minority.

Literacy represents the lifelong, intellectual process of gaining meaning from a critical interpretation of written or printed text. The key to all literacy is reading development, a progression of skills that begins with the ability to understand spoken words and decode written words, and culminates in the deep understanding of text. Reading development involves a range of complex language underpinnings including awareness of speech sounds (phonology), spelling patterns (orthography), word meaning (semantics), grammar (syntax) and patterns of word formation (morphology), all of which provide a necessary platform for reading fluency and comprehension. Once these skills are acquired, the reader can attain full language literacy, which includes the abilities to apply to printed material critical analysis, inference and synthesis; to write with accuracy and coherence; and to use information and insights from text as the basis for informed decisions and creative thought.[1]

Literacy in the United States

  • Functional illiteracy: 21% to 23% of adult Americans
    • were not "able to locate information in text",
    • could not "make low-level inferences using printed materials",
    • and were unable to "integrate easily identifiable pieces of information."
  • The resultant literacy rate for the United States would be at most 65-85% depending on where in the basic, minimal competence quantile one sets the cutoff.
  • Full Literacy: 15%, defined by:
    • the ability to compare viewpoints in two editorials; interpret a table about blood pressure, age, and physical activity; or compute and compare the cost per ounce of food items -- equivalent to a university undergraduate level,
    • is consistent with the notion that the "average" American reads at a 7th or 8th grade level
    • which is also consistent with recommendations, guidelines, and norms of readability for medication directions, product information, and popular fiction.[2]

(Disclaimer: The United States are a poster child here; your country doesn't fare much better)

What the world will speak in 2115

A century from now, expect fewer but simpler languages on every continent

Once large numbers of people could cross an ocean at one time, or be imported by force into a territory, a new language could end up being learned by hordes of adults instead of by children. As we know from our experiences in the classroom, adults aren't as good at mastering the details of a language as toddlers are, and the result was simpler languages.[3]

Creating a communication system from scratch

Gesture beats vocalization hands down

How does modality affect people's ability to create a communication system from scratch? Gesture-alone outperformed vocalization-alone, both in terms of successful communication and in terms of the creation of an inventory of sign-meaning mappings shared within a dyad (i.e., sign alignment). Combining vocalization with gesture did not improve performance beyond gesture-alone. In fact, for action items, gesture-alone was a more successful means of communication than the combined modalities. When people do not share a system for communication they can quickly create one, and gesture is the best means of doing so.[4]

See also: