Hundreds of thousands of Minnesota adults struggle to read

An estimated 12 million Canadian adults can't read at a level required to graduate from high school.

An estimated 12 million Canadian adults can't read at a level required to graduate from high school.

Canadian academic Brenna Clarke took to the internet soapbox in early November.

Using Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's election as cause, her "Open Letter on Literacy" began, "Holy shit, dude. You did it .… But as you swept to power on a message of real change … one population was left out of the conversation .… I’m talking about Canada’s surprisingly large population of functionally illiterate adults. While 97 percent of Canadians have some ability to read and write, a staggering 12 million Canadians — about 48 percent of the adult population — do not meet Level 3 literacy, defined as being 'able to meet the demands of everyday life and perform work-related tasks.'”

Unable to contain herself for a dig at her neighbors south of the border, Clarke added, "And lest my American readers get smug, your numbers are about 10 percent worse, my friends."

Really? What about in, say, Chisholm, Minnesota? Eden Prairie? 

Turns out Minnesota's probably doing better than most of America, though firm stats aren't always available. Regardless, we've still got some work to do to get everyone on the same page. 

About 6 percent, or roughly 350,000 adults in Minnesota in 2003 had literacy issues, meaning they were "unable to read and understand any written information" as well as "being able only to locate easily identifiable information in short … English," according to the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics. That was a 3 percent improvement from the department's survey in 1992.

What about now?

"Literacy used to be broken down as a rural and urban thing, " says Minnesota Literacy Council's Melissa Martinson. "Now, we look at it more along the lines of immigrants, refugees, and poverty."

Approximately 70,000 adults in the state are enrolled in basic education courses, according to Martinson. They're for those age 17 and over, who function below the 12th grade level in academic areas like reading and writing. It's instruction, for instance, that might be necessary for literacy and job-training.

"But we believe that only one in 10 people who need these kind of services are actually accessing them," Martinson adds. "That would bring the number to about 700,000 Minnesotans."

Much of this population comes from Minnesota's newest residents, according to data from the Literacy Action Network, a statewide organization that works to strengthen Adult Basic Education services. The group estimates that 250,000 residents are in need of English literacy assistance.

"We are certainly in need of more up-to-date literacy data," says Martinson. "Best we can tell, there remains hundreds of thousands adults in this state that struggle to read or can't read at all."