Literacy in the Hispanic World: Implications for SLPs

  • April 11, 2005
  • Henriette Langdon

A global perspective of the meaning of literacy was my original intended discussion for the April’s ¿QUE TAL? column because the term has been on every person’s mind especially after No Child Left Behind (NCLB) became law in early 2002. Everyone is well aware that since the implementation of NCLB a tremendous emphasis has been placed on accountability and assurance that every student graduating from high school is a literate citizen.

However, upon some reflection I decided to focus on a smaller group of countries because literacy has so many possible definitions. Hence, this report includes information about literacy in the United States and the Hispanic world only. My decision to address the issue of literacy for only one particular group in addition to the United States (rather than the entire globe) is based on two important facts:

  1. the second largest group living in the United States is Hispanic and,
  2. the United States is in the American continent where the majority of countries use Spanish as their primary language.

Facts from the United States

Literacy can be defined in many different ways. The National Institute for Literacy (NIFL) website definition of literacy is “an individual’s ability to read, write, speak in English, compute and solve problems at levels of proficiency necessary to function on the job, in the family of the individual and in society.” An added component to this definition is the ability to use technology to access needed information.

Literacy is divided into five levels.

Individuals who are at Level 1 can read just a little but are unable to fill out an application or read a food label. An estimated 44 million adults are at this level of literacy. The high number includes a large proportion of immigrants who may not have attained sufficient English to read the language and also may not be literate in their own language as well as other individuals with various learning difficulties. Adults in Level 2 (comprising another 40 to 50 million individuals) usually can perform more complex tasks and can integrate written information– but not at a higher level where problem-solving skills are necessary. Adults in Levels 3 through 5 usually can understand texts that are lengthier and more complex.

The United States has a greater proportion of adults in Levels 1 and 2 compared to other countries such as Australia, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. (Adult Literacy Survey (IALS), 1997). [The National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) will provide more recent information in July 2005 with details on trends from 1992 to 2003 and the survey will be released in December 2005].

Some further information indicates that: (1): 43% of people with the lowest literacy skills live in poverty and 70% in that category have no full or part time jobs and. (2) those who do not hold a high school diploma earn a mean monthly income of $452 compared to $1,830 for those who complete a college degree. (Humbolt Literacy Center)

Facts from the Hispanic World.

The information presented is based on facts reported by the Population Reference Bureau and confirmed by data from UNESCO.

The table below lists the literacy rates for Males and Females for each country in the American continent where Spanish is the majority language. However, what is meant by literacy for each country listed remains a challenge.

Please note that Guatemala, Honduras and Haiti report the lowest literacy rates. Also, in several instances the percentage of illiteracy is greater in women compared to men. For example, Bolivia, El Salvador, Mexico, and Peru.

Literacy in Spanish-speaking Countries of the American Continent
Argentina 97% 97%
Bolivia 92% 79%
Chile 96% 96%
Colombia 92% 92%
Costa Rica 95% 96%
Cuba 97% 97%
Dominican Republic 84% 84%
Ecuador 93% 90%
El Salvador 82% 76%
Guatemala 76% 61%
Honduras 75% 75%
Mexico 93% 89%
Nicaragua 66% 67%
Panama 93% 91%
Paraguay 94% 92%
Peru 95% 85%
Uruguay 97% 98%
Venezuela 93% 92%
Why should SLPs be aware of these facts?

Currently, there is a strong emphasis on encouraging parents to read to their child as early as possible. However, some of the parents may not have had experience attending school in their own country or have limited formal education. Furthermore, many do not have the means to purchase adequate food supplies, and purchasing a book has a low priority. Therefore, recommendations provided by SLPs and other school personnel should be realistic.

Instead of asking parents to read to their child, the professional can explain the importance of developing listening skills, dialogue, and imagination in increasing oral language which has important impact on reading. Some suggestions include:

  1. Communicating with he child in the parents’ most comfortable language. Speaking Spanish or any other language at home will not interfere with the child’s learning of English. A strong foundation in any language will enhance learning of another language (Cummins, 2000; Genesee, Paradis & Crago, 2004).
  2. Talking about experiences, asking questions about the child’s day, thoughts and activities.
  3. Singing or playing songs and talking about the words that are included in those tunes.
  4. Looking at pictured and wordless books and making up stories.
  5. Going to the library and looking at books as well as participating in story -time activities.
  6. For older students, asking them to read to their parents so they discuss what is being related in the text.

Please be sure to read the May ¿Qué Tal? column
How Could ‘May Better Hearing and Speech Month’ Become a Year-Round Endeavor?

As always, I do welcome your comments.

Henriette W. Langdon, Ed.D., F-CCC-SLP
Communicative Disorders & Sciences
College of Education
San José State University
San José, CA 95192-0079
408-924-4019 voice
408-924-3641 fax

Gracias – Thank you.

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