Social Question

escapedone7's avatar

Do you believe average reading comprehension and writing skills have decreased in the general adult population? If so, what factors do you think exacerbate and proliferate the trend?

Asked by escapedone7 (5920points) February 22nd, 2010

What is your opinion? This is listed under “discussion”. I sincerely hope the word discussion is understood. Is the general modern adult population regressing in the ability to communicate effectively because of a trend in declining reading comprehension and writing ability? What factors would be contributing to and exacerbating such a trend? Do you view this as a problem, or might the need for such skills merely be less important in general? Some skills for instance, become obsolete over time due to changes. There was a time when knowledge of morse code and the ability to send wire telegraphs was in high demand for instance, but due to changes in modern life the skill is no longer as relevant. Are reading comprehension and writing skills simply becoming less relevant due to similar changes in technology and circumstances? Are changes in current educational practice and theory to blame, such as the “whole language” approach to reading instruction as opposed to phonics? What might be done to change attitudes and reverse the trend of decline in skills, if you believe there is one?

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38 Answers

marinelife's avatar

First, do you have any statistics or studies that show that reading comprehension and the ability to communicate have decreased?

There is no diminution of demand for the skills. In fact, it is more vital than ever to be able to read and comprehend what is read.

Reading is part of most jobs today.

ucme's avatar

Duh, I dunno T.C.

Seek's avatar

It seems to me that society has become far too accepting of poor grammar and spelling skills. I do not see any reason to consider these “obsolete”. Quite the opposite, in fact. With the development of the Internet as a basic means of communication, we should as a whole be more concerned with assuring that what we say is in fact construed as what we intended to imply.

It really gets my goat when I see people (particularly teenagers) type in online forums “im not in english class so who cares if i rite lik dis”.

I care.

Using correct spelling and grammar shows respect for the people with whom you are communicating. It shows that you are concerned with ensuring that your communication is mutually understood.

No one wants to be bothered with translating or trying to make sense of a poorly written discussion question, forum post, resume, essay, etc. When I was in school (not that long ago), my teachers would look at a paper and hand it back in a split second if they noticed it was not formatted correctly, or if there were a few misspellings on the front page. They would say “This is not what I asked for. Turn it in when you do the assignment correctly.” They did not accept half-assed work and simply deduct points. Thank you, teachers. You know who you are.

escapedone7's avatar

It is obvious language changes over time. Read Shakespeare an you can easily see that language is evolutionary and changes over time. We rarely see the word “thou” in print anymore. When I was a child the word “Google” was neither a noun or a verb. Sit in any middle school classroom and you may have trouble understanding “what be poppin”. Perhaps the old school rules of grammar, punctuation, spelling, that were once drilled into us also evolve with time to fit needs and context. Perhaps what seems to be like a “decline” is merely an evolutionary, normal process that has left me being the one with a deficit in ability to communicate.

CharlieGirl's avatar

I think that the launguage is changing and evolving,that’s all.

trailsillustrated's avatar

there have always been people that can’t read and don’t know their directions. I don’t think its become more prevalent, there are just more people

erichw1504's avatar

Yes, because I went into this question, saw the long description and decided to skip it and just write this answer.

borderline_blonde's avatar

I don’t know if there’s been an actual decrease over time, and there has always been slang. However, I am amazed at the number of people I know that graduated from high school illiterate. Possibly, the school system failed them, more concerned with graduating the kids and getting them out of there than helping them learn. I certainly don’t think I got much of an education in high school, anyway.

Trillian's avatar


Cruiser's avatar

I was going to write an answer but I forgot what the question was….

wundayatta's avatar

I can’t accept the premise without evidence. One piece of evidence that argues against the premise is that scores on standardized tests have been rising from generation to generation. The SAT has to be recalibrated every twenty years because of that. Anyway, based on the SAT evidence, which requires reading comprehension and now, I believe, writing, I’d have to say that reading comprehension and writing skills are improving.

Apparently, each succeeding generation is smarter because they have more rapid access to the information their parents had. We can pass along the lessons we learned the hard way, so our kids can know that stuff, and focus on learning their own lessons the hard way.

These days, I think that we will start seeing an exponential improvement. Artificial calculating and memory aids, together with an enormous increase in communication mechanisms and bandwidth provide our children with a big leg up. I’d say our children are writing more than ever, now that they can text, IM, Facebook and God forbid, even email! So, unless someone can show me any evidence to the contrary, I’d say that the OP shouldn’t worry about it. We’ve got things well in hand.

Ivy's avatar

In 2004, a National Endowment for the Arts report titled “Reading at Risk” found only 57 percent of American adults had read a book in 2002, a four percentage point drop in a decade. The study faulted television, movies and the Internet.

Who are the 27 percent of people the AP-Ipsos poll found hadn’t read a single book this year? Nearly a third of men and a quarter of women fit that category. They tend to be older, less educated, lower income, minorities, from rural areas and less religious.”

The publishing business totaled $35.7 billion in global sales last year, 3 percent more than the previous year, according to the Book Industry Study Group. (In 2005, the video game industry claimed profits of 2.2 billion.)

wundayatta's avatar

@Dracool Guess what? I haven’t read a book in a year. Maybe two. However I have written the equivalent of three or four books, and I’ve done an awful lot of reading.

Trillian's avatar

@wundayatta at the risk of sounding argumentative, I believe the empirical evidence before my eyes and ears. I see it daily, even here; misspelled words, improper grammar, and syntax, even words used incorrectly.
I hear it in my daily real life, and on television and the radio. You may not read a lot, but you are not the one in question. The ones in question are in the majority anymore, and they are below your level of reading and writing abilities.
The skills are more in demand than ever, and that’s going to be a real problem, because they’re not being taught. I know that Journalism curriculums in particular are noticing the lack, as I had to read an article a couple semesters ago that addressed this issue.
The ability to speak, read and write proper English has/had been discounted as “unimportant” for several years, and only recently has been kind of revised and been given attention again. There are entire generations of adults and youngsters out there who lack the basics for multiple reasons.
I think the jury is still out in the newer generations’ ability to read and write, but I’m not all that hopeful. Again, the evidence that I trust is empirical.

escapedone7's avatar

I am loving this discussion. I also have been left with an impression from daily interactions with others. However something has been brought up that I did not consider. The people I have witnessed “in action” might actually have many skills they choose not to use or practice. Maybe they have the ability but not the motivation.

Ivy's avatar

@wundayatta Every writer I’ve known is a reader, whether they’re reading at the time or not. Sounds like it’s been a prolific year or two for you. I’m impressed by writers more than I am by readers:)

Trillian's avatar

@escapedone7 I doubt that. Seriously. It is my experience that people who need to be corrected are lazy and don’t care if they speak or write properly or not. This indicates a lack, not only of skills, but of something more essential. I don’t think I can say it any more clearly than @Seek_Kolinahr did though.

Val123's avatar

Compared to when? A hundred fifty years ago, most people couldn’t read or write.

Kelci33's avatar

No I completly do not. What I learned in highschool was what my parets learned in college. Also think of how much kids text. They are reading wy more material then they ever have before. Even if it is junk.

Seek's avatar

“They are reading wy more material then they ever have before. Even if it is junk.”

The fact that they are reading “junk” is exactly the point.

Your brain is trained like any other activity. If you consistently perform the wrong motion, you’ll consistently get the wrong result. You won’t hit a home run if you’re practicing strikes.

wundayatta's avatar

@Trillian You know there’s more than one kind of literacy, and frankly, I’m a bit more scared by the lack of math literacy than I am of written or spoken literacy.

You believe the evidence before your eyes. A statistician would never believe that. They would know they are looking at a biased sample.

However there is another thing that needs to be quantified here—and that is literacy in the past. We have to compare the present to the past, and I seriously doubt we would find that there was a more literate public in the past. I think what we’re seeing is a kind of perceptual vigilance—selective bias.

In fact, I think this whole question is a kind of red herring. It’s designed to create a platform for people to complain about mispellings and bad grammar and whatnot. It is designed to give a certain minority a soap box on which to proclaim their prejudices. And yes, they are unreasonable prejudices because no one has provided any data (except anecdotal data) to support them. Until that time, all of us (me included) must remain agnostic about this issue, unless we’re just engaging in bloviation and tergiversation.

DarkScribe's avatar

In the general adult population? Why focus on all adults? It is the teenagers and young adult population who lack erudition, not their parents, grandparents etc. There have been a number of instances recently of high profile national recruitment agencies reporting that employers want nothing to do with Gen Y. They consider them inept and of little value with regard to literacy skills, work ethic and reliability. Many universities have reported that they are finding new students to be barely literate.

In a world where communication is Txtspk and most classic literature is presented in the form of movies what else can be expected?

the100thmonkey's avatar

@Seek_Kolinahr: Language and literacy is not a mechanical activity whose improvement is encouraged through repetition; it is a dynamic, self-organising system that changes and is changed with every action that requires its use.

David Crystal has written and presented extensively on the topic. His most recent book on it is Txting: the gr8 db8. I recommend you read the book. In short, the evidence does not support your conclusion., although it is commonly held.

A quick Google brings up this interesting datasheet. It’s difficult to see how literacy rates are declining when they are at 99% for most of the “developed world”, although I suspect the actual literacy rate is lower than as given, and will depend on a much more granular analysis by age, gender, income, educational history and cultural factors.

However, there is literacy, and there are literacy skills – how well someone can cope with texts of varying difficulties, genres and topics. In many cases, this is arguably a matter of familiarity with genre conventions given the high literacy rates in the developed world.

Most people can read, most can write, although how well they write depends on their familiarity with what they are writing. For example, I suck at cards and personal letters – I’m far more comfortable with spoken interactions of that kind, business letters and academic discourse. That doesn’t mean I’m illiterate.

mirifique's avatar

I would argue that generally, while our comprehension and retention for longer texts (books, magazine articles, etc.) has greatly diminished, our ability to rapidly “scan” short (blog posts, e-mails) or very short texts (websites, text messages, Facebook updates, and Twitter feeds), and execute decisions based on these texts, has vastly improved. My prediction is that those individuals who can master both longer and shorter text comprehension and retention, as well as, I think, concise short text composition, will be the most successful in the “new economy.”

Val123's avatar

I’d say our attention spans have shortened considerably. Have you ever looked through a Reader’s Digest from the 50’s? The print is smaller, the articles were quite a bit longer, and more technical.

Axemusica's avatar

There’s no doubt in my mind that pop culture has a lot to do with jargon that most people with common sense would consider incomprehensible. What with all the jigga this and shizzle that. I’m sure people knew that when they heard these phrases that there were in fact not actually words, but when they inducted the word “bling” into the dictionary I was kind of irate. Although, a great new word that is highly descriptive about how jewelry looks, I felt as though things were going down hill.

@DarkScribe Do have a link about the Y Gen.? I fall in to the category of Echo Boomers, Generation Next, or whatever your preference in calling us.

The truth of the matter is, I did horrible in school. It was mostly due to my home life. I was kind of raised like an inmate. Not being able to join in the reindeer games and what not, so school was my out in the yard time, my fun time. So, in which I regret I never took school seriously. Even now I have a very hard time spelling. Before spell corrections addons to most browsers I was screwed. I can comprehend and say words that I really have no idea how to spell. I would say that my spelling has improved due to these gadgets. Would not having such items inhibit growth? Maybe. If I didn’t have a spell checker would I be looked down upon by my fellow flutherian? Most likely.

I don’t consider myself a genius, but I’m no moron. The fact that people are surprised to find out I’m not a college graduate during a conversation with is proof enough, for me at least. Speaking with me you would have no indication that I dropped out of school at 16 and had completely equivalency a few weeks later. As for writing, I actually really enjoy doing so, but feel distraught many a times due to my inability to spell. Even now, I’ve reference and had to spell check numerous words.

Still I would like to see evidence of this “decline” in writing and comprehension of the language, but even in most, bias or not, I do believe that home life has a big factor in educational growth and in this day and age I would argue that it’s not a very healthy one.

escapedone7's avatar

I have been having trouble communicating with a certain set of people. I really think some people are simply having trouble with comprehending written memos and directions I give them in a work situation. I am definitely having trouble understanding some of the posts I read online. I merely wanted discussion and opinion. I enjoyed the responses.

I can see that many people here did understand my question, and replied with thoughtful genuine intelligent answers. I think many good points were made. There is a difference between being able to read a sign and reading a novel.There is a difference between having an inability to use skills and choosing not to use them. Language is fluid and skills change with technology and culture. More people can read today than could read in the dark ages. I was thinking more of the fact there has been a definite change in writing styles over the last 3 generations and the fact there is sometimes such a difference in written communication styles these days with some people that I experience a communication barrier. It may not be a decline but simple language evolution or cultural thing. I really am having some trouble communicating. I will try to adapt my own conventions accordingly.

PacificToast's avatar

Yes, I believe so, with all this immediate gratification, no one learns to wait or read entire articles or even books. They feel they must abbreviate in order to convey their message best. But I’ve taken an reading comprehension test and scored 1470/1500.

sweetteaindahouse's avatar

I don’t know about adults, but at my highschool which is mostly rednecks and people who don’t care, the reading comprehension and grammar sucks. I love when people use correct grammar, and a little bit of me dies each day because of what I hear.

graynett's avatar

Thx but I’m afkb lol rrtfl

ChaosCross's avatar

More people in number could read in the 50’s than in the present day.

Facts hurt.

Let’s be real here, a good majority of the US population are lazy fat slobs obsessed with saving the planet and getting healthy without putting in any effort, not that this is a direct reason, I am simply stating that people are far more unwilling to try than they were a few dozen years ago. When people are lazy, they usually learn less, this includes the regions of languages, reading, writing, etc. Most people blame TV, the media, video games, whatever diversion they can give to explain the situation, and in most cases, they are right. Back in the day, reading and writing were the coolest thing on two wheels. But now we have things like Lost and Modern Warfare 2 to keep us entertained with a minimum of effort, so naturally a logical comparison would be “we are worse at these things because we don’t do them as much.” But I think that is only half the problem.

The other half of the problem are the people. People designed by various societies not to care about important practical skills like reading and writing. If you want the books to be better (aka not have another vampire romance novel published) you need the help the people to be better as well.

Seek's avatar


”@Seek_Kolinahr: Language and literacy is not a mechanical activity whose improvement is encouraged through repetition; it is a dynamic, self-organising system that changes and is changed with every action that requires its use.”

Correct. It is not encouraged through repetition, but it is discouraged through repetition. Think of how many people who use the phrases “a whole nother” and “I have drank”. Neither of these is grammatically acceptable, but it seems they have become completely socially acceptable. It grinds me to the bone every time I hear it.

The only way to develop one’s skills further (without spending copious amounts of time in a formal educational setting) is to continue reading well-written works that use vocabulary with which one is unfamiliar.

Think about how one teaches a child to read. It begins with “See Spot Run”, moves through Disney stories and Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein, and by the time they’ve reached the end of grammar school they are (we hope) capable of understanding Encyclopaedia Brittanica articles.

If, after that schooling, that child stops reading more advanced work for, say, their best friend’s blog on bad Super Bowl commercials, they’re likely to repeat and reuse the same grammar mistakes commonly found in those forms of pseudo-literature.

…which is where we get shows such as “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?”

wundayatta's avatar

A whole ‘nother is the only infix I know. It is one of very few or the only infix in the English language, and as such, it is very precious. So don’t knock it, or may have to force you to read “See Spot Run” books twenty-four/seven! ;-)

mattbrowne's avatar

YouTube will finish off what has been started by television. The educational divide will increase.

DarkScribe's avatar

@Axemusica DarkScribe Do have a link about the Y Gen.?

No, it has been an ongoing series of articles and TV Current Affairs programs. Started when the depression/recession first hit. They were the ones most affected regarding unemployment. Many who had only been working for four or five years had a resume that included up to a dozen jobs. They were at the bottom of the demand list among the few remaining available jobs. The recession is over now but they are still the least employable in a world where the Government is encouraging Baby-Boomers to work into their seventies.

MarcoNJ's avatar

@wundayatta Touché. I gotta hand it to you, you came in like a Heavyweight boxer ready to knock somebody’s head off….especially with your third response. I read it like, “Damn! Did y’all just see that?!”

Anyways, this topic could easily be interchanged with any other on how things used to be better. Music? Fashion? Movies? Chivalry? Etc, etc. But as much as one might like to think that the younger generation is all screwed up, don’t be so quickly discouraged and ready to proclaim Doomsday. It’s not that bad. Stand back and let the youth blossom into their own or if you’d like, take the proactive approach become an English teacher. That is, unless you already are one….to which I tip my hat. Your services are honorable and much appreciated.

Other than that….fix yourself a drink, or roll up a nice doobie and chill. Life is about good times.

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