Believe it or Not: Millions of Children Cannot Read

Believe it or Not: Millions of Children Cannot Read

Some children who have strong literacy experiences still encounter difficulties in reading / Photo by Rozochka via Shutterstock


Reading is an important skill that every person should have and be good at. People develop their thoughts, enhance their knowledge, and keep their minds active through reading. It is also a good form of entertainment, as there are numerous books that people can read in their lifetime. However, the increasing number of children and adolescents who cannot read in this era is quite alarming.


How Many Cannot Read

In 2017, the UNESCO Institute for Statistics reported that “more than 617 million children and adolescents are not achieving minimum proficiency levels (MPLs) in reading.” This is equivalent to six out of 10 children and adolescents not learning globally.

Furthermore, “91% of primary school-age children living in low-income countries will not achieve MPLs in reading.” Secondary school-age students in low-income countries share the same dilemma, as 93% of them will not achieve MPLs in reading, as well.

Based on research in 2015, the continents of Asia and Africa have more children and adolescents not reaching MPLs in reading compared to America, Europe, the Caribbean, and Oceania.

Central and Southern Asia tops the list with 241 million. They are followed by Sub-Saharan Africa with 202 million, Eastern and Southeastern Asia with 43 million, and Western Asia and Northern Africa with 46 million. Meanwhile, Latin America and the Caribbean have 35 million. Northern America and Europe have 15 million. Oceania has the least number with only 1.2 million.

The UNESCO research also showed that “girls are more likely than boys to read proficiently.” Apparently, girls grab the opportunity to learn and strive in their studies.

It also appeared that a large share of children and adolescents not learning come from low-income countries. It is followed by lower-middle-income countries, then upper-middle-income countries. Certainly, high-income countries contribute to a higher number of literate children and adolescents.

The data gathered by UNESCO showed a learning crisis that could hinder progress in global education. It is important that the world has literate populations. Thus, there is a need to improve the quality of education in different countries all over the world.


Why Children Cannot Read

“Learning to read is critical to a child’s overall well-being,” G. Reid Lyon, Ph.D. said. He is the former chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch under the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the National Institute of Health. According to him, if children do not learn how to read, there is little to no hope for a better life ahead of them.

For him, children should learn how to read even before they start attending formal school. Those who have encouraging literacy experiences since they were born develop vocabulary better, read better, and become more aware of print and literacy concepts.

Therefore, children who do not have these important literacy experiences fail at reading most of the time, as they enter kindergarten and advance to elementary. They are unaware of sound structure and language patterns. These children are often raised in poverty, with parents who also have low reading levels and practices.

But this is not always the case. Some children who have strong literacy experiences still encounter difficulties in reading. This is because of “deficits in the development of phoneme awareness skills,” which negatively affect these children’s reading acquisition. Aside from this, they “must also develop phonics concepts and apply these skills fluently in text.”


What Actually Happens in Schools

In an article published in the National Public Radio website, the writer shared the findings of a literacy director named Kim Harper after attending professional development at a low-performing elementary school.

He found out that teachers teach students that whenever they encounter a word that they do not know, they should look at the picture and guess. They should use context and visual clues. As long as they understand the meaning of the story and not the exact words used, they are doing fine.

For example, if students encounter the word “horse” and pronounce it as “house,” the teacher would say they read it wrong. But if students said “pony” instead of “horse,” then it is considered correct as they mean the same thing, which Harper found shocking.

When students encounter a word they do not know, their teacher should tell them to examine the letters in the word and decode it / Photo by Tatjana Agrici via Shutterstock


This should not be the case if we want children to become skilled readers. It should not be assumed that reading comes naturally; it is learned. Beginning readers should understand “that written text is a code for speech sounds.” They need to crack this code.

Therefore, when students encounter a word they do not know, their teacher should tell them to examine the letters in the word and decode it. They should not guess, but apply what they learned about how the combination of letters represents speech sounds. This is the science of reading.


Benefits of Reading Skills

Once children finally learn and understand how to read, the next step is to teach them to practice and enjoy it. Reading offers many benefits, such as improved critical thinking and communication skills. When children read, they are able to think and process information. This helps them make reasoned arguments on different subjects, which they would find useful wherever they go. Also, reading enhances vocabulary, enabling children to communicate more effectively with other people.