Literacy matters in a democratic society

Andrea W. Doray, Alchemy
Posted 4/2/13

Don’t you just love rankings, checking out where we stack up against others? For example, Colorado consistently ranks as the most fit state in the …

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Literacy matters in a democratic society


Don’t you just love rankings, checking out where we stack up against others? For example, Colorado consistently ranks as the most fit state in the nation.

But did you know that Arvada ranks No. 6 among the most physically active cities in America? And last year, Jefferson County was recognized for best wellness programs in the workplace.

One recent ranking places the Denver area in the top five in another important category: most literate cities.

Up from 10th last year, Denver is now No. 5, based on number of bookstores, library resources, newspaper circulation, periodical publishing resources, Internet resources, and educational attainment.

This particular set of factors measures people’s use of their literacy, considered essential to individual economic success, civic participation and the quality of life in a community.

The survey, conducted by Central Connecticut State University, expands the definition of reading, too, by counting online book orders, e-book readers, and page views on local newspaper websites.

Those of us who live here — with our fantastic library resources and our strong educational institutions — can understand why we rank so high. Washington, D.C., Seattle and Minneapolis stayed at numbers 1, 2 and 3 respectively.

However, literacy continues to be a challenge for our nation overall. Data from the 2007 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) shows that literacy proficiency declined from 1992 to 2003, the most recent study period.

Broadly, NAAL defines literacy as the skills required to perform tasks that include “the ability to use printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.”

What’s troubling is that scores for adults at all levels of education declined during this period, some significantly.

Adults with some high school were down nine points in “prose literacy” (locating and comparing information, for example) and high school graduates were down six points in prose.

Alarmingly, college graduates were down 11 points in prose and 14 points in “document literacy” (reading a map or bus schedule), and adults with graduate studies or degrees were down 13 points in prose and 17 points in document literacy.

Literacy in our country and our communities matters. Literacy fosters the growth of self-identity and encourages individual and self-analytical thinking. Literacy enhances the ability to read, infer and draw conclusions.

And, importantly, literacy gives us a stake in our democracy, because citizens who can read and write and think can make more informed decisions. It will be interesting to see what happens to our nation’s literacy rates in the 10 years between 2003 and 2013, although we won’t have that data for a few more years.

In any case, we seem to be faring well here at home at using our literacy. It’s up to us, though, to keep Colorado and our communities on an upward trend.

We need to support our schools and libraries, and our area’s thriving literary community.

We must read to our kids and read ourselves to sleep.

We need to read, to think, to share. Because everyone benefits when citizens participate in our democratic society as informed decision makers. That’s why literacy matters.

So, say it loud and say it proud: “We’re No. 5!”

Andrea Doray is a writer who speaks around the country about the importance of adult literacy. She also champions free speech, freedom of the press, and funny stories. Contact her at


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