Careers for Raising the Literacy Rate

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How to Take Action and Give the Power of Reading & Writing

Most people take the ability to read and write for granted, but for some, literacy is elusive, putting them at a profound disadvantage in a society heavily dependent on the written word. Keep reading for an in-depth look at professional avenues to improve literacy, from volunteer work with grassroots organizations to full-time careers. The issue of literacy is also covered at length, including some of its root causes and the societal consequences of having so many people who struggle with even basic tasks such as reading a menu or paying bills.

Meet the Experts

Portrait of Marsha Connet

Marsha Connet

Marsha Connet is the Southeast Regional Consultant with Wisconsin Literacy, a statewide organization providing support to literacy programs, family literacy groups, and other educational programs. She is also an adjunct instructor with Milwaukee Area Technical College, Pre-College Division.

Portrait of Dr. Jodi Tommerdahl

Dr. Jodi Tommerdahl

Dr. Jodi Tommerdahl is an Associate Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Texas at Arlington, and the CEO of VisioSound, a language learning software company focusing on speech. She earned her PhD at the Sorbonne and her master's degree at the University of London. Her research focuses on the neuroscience of language and cognition.

Portrait of Anne Budicin

Anne Budicin

Anne Budicin has been an educator for more than 25 years. She began her teaching career at the Armed Services Special Education and Training School in Hawaii, where she taught both gifted students and students with learning disabilities. She then taught at the Harbour School in Annapolis, Maryland, known for its individualized approach to learning, before joining Glenwood Academy, where she has been for 16 years.

Who Needs English Literacy Help?

Any number of factors can affect literacy, from learning disorders to a fundamental lack of education or access to resources. Following are some of the main types of people who need literacy assistance, as well as a look at the underlying causes.

Adults who never learned to read and write at a proficient level

Low literacy can be a vicious cycle. About one in four U.S. children grow up without learning how to read, and these youths are four times more likely to drop out of high school, making them even less likely to receive help with literacy issues.

English speakers with learning disabilities

About 85 percent of people with learning disabilities have problems reading and writing. Low literacy is often associated with conditions like dyslexia, which affects the ability to read, and dysgraphia, which causes difficulty with writing.

ESL (English as a Second Language) learners

Immigrants often need literacy help, particularly those who come from economically disadvantaged countries. Likewise, American-born children of immigrants are also likely to need help learning how to read and write in English.

Inmates & recent inmates

Low literacy is a widespread problem among people in the criminal justice system – with 70 percent of inmates unable to read. Many inmates first became incarcerated as juveniles, reducing their chances of gaining basic reading skills.

Children in underserved communities

Schools in underserved communities often lack sufficient resources to ensure students become literate. These students may also come from families with low literacy rates, often meaning they have less exposure to books or other reading materials.

Taking Action:
English Literacy Careers & Volunteer Work

Those who want to help others read and write English can pursue a variety of career and volunteer opportunities. The table below describes some of the primary avenues for making a difference.

Adult Literacy Teachers Adult literacy teachers provide instruction on basic English reading, writing and speaking skills. Working in schools and social assistance organizations, they emphasize workplace language skills to help students find employment.
English Teachers English instructors teach reading, writing and speaking skills that are appropriate for a specific grade level. In addition to teaching the general population, they may provide specialized instruction to students who have reading problems, which can include reviewing their skills and working with them in small groups where the focus is on phonetics and vocabulary.
ESL Teachers ESL teachers provide instruction to students whose native language is not English. Lessons are designed to help students navigate daily life, find employment, and pass the citizenship test.
Instructional Coordinators Instructional coordinators help develop school standards that ensure students receive a quality education. They also train teachers on techniques that can be used in the classroom when working with students who need literacy help.
School Counselors School counselors help parents and teachers identify literacy issues and create a plan to improve students' reading and writing skills. In some cases, school counselors may assist teachers in the classroom.
School Librarians Librarians may create reading programs targeted toward low literacy individuals, buy the books needed to help them, and ensure that students can access programs and services.
Special Education Teachers Special education teachers adapt their lessons to effectively teach those with learning disabilities. They work with parents, counselors and administrators to assess students' literacy needs and implement lessons that will most benefit them.
First BookVolunteers read to children in their communities, organize fundraisers, and donate books.
International Literacy AssociationThe International Literacy Association has councils on the state, regional and local levels where people can volunteer. In addition, the organization has affiliates in 75 countries.
Public LibrariesLocal libraries often have community-based literacy programs staffed by volunteers.
Raising A ReaderVolunteers can participate in reading events, pack books to be distributed to children and educators, or provide office support.
Reach Out and ReadThose who volunteer for this organization can read to others, donate books, or help create literacy-rich waiting rooms.
UNESCOVolunteers are welcome at events UNESCO organizes around the world on International Literacy Day.

Literacy Career Spotlight:
How to Become an ESL Teacher

English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers, also known as English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teachers, assist those who are not native English speakers by using a practical curriculum that emphasizes everyday situations students will encounter—from filling out a job application to reading food labels at the grocery store. This approach serves both to increase literacy and to help students adjust to American life.

Because ESL teachers usually don't share a common language with their students, they must find creative ways to bridge the gap. Their training usually involves the following steps:

Earn a bachelor's degree

The minimum requirement for becoming an ESL teacher is to earn a bachelor's degree in a discipline such as English, education or a foreign language.

  1. Complete ESL training

    Depending on the state they live in, ESL teachers may be required to receive specialized training in linguistic theory or learning a second language. Some schools have certification programs for ESL teachers that cover topics such as teaching grammar and conversational skills, assessing student language abilities, and tailoring curriculum to meet specific needs.

  2. Obtain a teaching license

    Teachers must get a state license to work, although the criteria for credentialing may vary from state to state.

  3. Work experience

    In some states, teachers are required to gain specific ESL experience to receive a license. Pre-licensure opportunities may be found at adult centers, community colleges, international education programs, and public and private schools.

  4. Earn a master's degree (optional)

    Master's degrees are not required for all jobs, but some employers prefer to hire ESL teachers with advanced knowledge and training.

Projected National Job Growth (2014-2024)

7% (5,500 New Jobs)

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Teaching English Overseas

Teaching English abroad can not only be a culturally enriching experience, but one that serves a practical function for ESL teachers who need hands-on experience to qualify for a license or simply hone their skills. Those in the education field are not the only ones taking advantage of these opportunities, however. According to Go Overseas, of the 250,000 English speakers who teach the language abroad each year, the majority of them are not trained teachers—just people who want to make a meaningful contribution to those who need literacy help.

Teach Abroad FAQs
Am I qualified to teach abroad?

The qualifications to teach English overseas vary by country. Although some require that teachers have a bachelor's degree or a Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) certification, others hire instructors with no formal training at all. Similarly, some require English teachers to be familiar with the host country's native language, so it may be necessary to take foreign language courses in preparation.

I can't decide where I want to teach. How do settle on a host country?

In addition to local language and educational requirements (as well as your travel interests), salary and cost of living are two important factors to look at when choosing a host country. Some locations in Asia, for example, pay among the highest salaries for this work. In contrast, much lower wages are paid in countries such as Costa Rica. In some cases, a country may have a government-funded program that allows English teachers to receive free housing and airfare reimbursement. The benefits can vary as widely as the education requirements, so it's important for prospective English teachers to do their homework on these issues before making any decisions.

Illiteracy, Poverty and Crime: Following the Link

When people think about crime prevention, they may think about deterrents such as increased police patrols or stronger punitive sentences for offenders. Such approaches, however, only succeed at preventing criminal acts. Just as important (if not more so) is preventing individuals from becoming criminals in the first place. Poverty and illiteracy are two underlying causes of criminal behavior. Here we examine the inseparable relationship between these three elements.

Poverty often leads to desperation, leading some to commit crimes as a way to escape an environment devoid of opportunity.

It's no secret that poverty often leads to desperation, leading some to commit crimes as a way to escape an environment devoid of opportunity. Indeed, statistics show clear and disturbing links between poverty and criminal activity. Statistics also show strong correlations between low literacy and poverty. Poorer people have less access to resources that help develop literacy skills, and their weak reading and writing ability then excludes them from employment opportunities that could improve their economic situations.

Poorer people have reduced access to literacy resources, which in turn excludes them from future employment opportunities.

Unfortunately, schools in underserved communities often struggle financially, trying to educate students with insufficient resources. Parents in these communities often have low literacy skills themselves, and are unable to supplement or reinforce in-school training. As a result, many children struggle to attain even basic proficiency in language, cutting them off from opportunities for further education or good employment. In addition, it can make them feel embarrassed and unworthy, discouraging them from engaging in positive social activities such as church, sports, and school clubs. This isolation can increase the risks of committing crimes as well as becoming the victims of crime.

The social isolation of being illiterate can increase the risk of committing crimes and becoming the victim of one.

In order to create social and economic opportunities, literacy advocates stress the importance of programs that teach reading to poor populations and intervene with at-risk youth before they engage in criminal activity. For those who do end up in the criminal justice system, reading programs in prison can be a key tool to reduce recidivism rates, since basic literacy skills will give released inmates more opportunities for legitimate employment upon reentering society. The triangle of poverty, crime and low literacy, then, is not inescapable. Turning the page on crime prevention may well begin with turning the pages of a book.

Illiteracy by the Numbers

The inability to read fluently can have devastating effects on several areas of life. The statistics below illustrate how widespread this problem is, and how it contributes to problems such as crime and unemployment.

Approximately 14 percent of the U.S. population cannot read at a basic level

The U.S. scores below the international average in literacy, ranking 16 out of 24 countries

2/3 of students who can't read past the fourth-grade level end up becoming incarcerated or going on welfare

People with low literacy are 2X as likely to be unemployed

781 million adults around the world cannot read or write.

Sources:; UNESCO Institute for Statistics; ProLiteracy; Programme for the International; Assessment of Adult Competencies;

From the Experts: Interview With Marsha Connet,
Dr. Jodi Tommerdahl, and Anne Budicin

What are the consequences of the literacy problem in the United States?

Given how much of our educational system and work training is based on reading written information, [those who never learned to read and write beyond a certain level] have been denied access. Once in junior high and high school, functionally illiterate children will be unable to progress educationally and most likely will receive no higher education. This in turn limits the career and economic trajectory of the individual, and of course hurts the nation overall as the United States relies more and more heavily on a highly-educated workforce with a strong knowledge of technology.

Justin Lioi
Dr. Jodi Tommerdahl
Associate Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Texas at Arlington

The negative impact is multifaceted. Unemployment, low socioeconomic status, and low self-esteem are the most obvious adverse effects of low literacy. Losing the ability to be a lifelong learner, as well as not being able to provide educational assistance to one's children, are also very tragic consequences.

Justin Lioi
Anne Budicin
QDescribe your work with the low-literate population. What strategies do you use to help them?

As a regional consultant [for Wisconsin Literacy] I work with a portion of our member programs that provide reading, writing and speaking training to both native English speakers, as well as English Language Learners. I consult in training, administration, materials and lesson planning, etc. … Areas covered can include reading, writing, speaking, health literacy, financial literacy, numeracy and more. All fall under the umbrella of literacy education.

Justin Lioi

Marsha Connet
Southeast Regional Consultant with Wisconsin Literacy

At Glenwood Academy, a … residential school for good kids from challenging circumstances, our students often come … from poor-performing schools with crowded classrooms and limited services. While their families value education, early literacy is often not a priority in the home.

When these students enter our school … we determine their academic levels and plan individualized instruction accordingly. Students must be presented with work at their instructional level to begin building a solid foundation of skills. … Setting students up to succeed means meeting them where they are. When students are able to learn and experience success, they buy into the learning process! They become confident learners who feel positive about school.

Justin Lioi
Anne Budicin

What careers would you suggest to those who want to help the low literate?

Certainly careers in education, with a focus on adult education or literacy, are a great starting place. Special education that focuses on learning disabilities is also extremely valuable in the literacy world. Literacy education can focus on children and families (family literacy) on adults (adult basic education) or on those wishing to learn English (English language learners).

Justin Lioi
Marsha Connet
Southeast Regional Consultant with Wisconsin Literacy

Perhaps even more important than the career is the choice of education. In order to help people … learn to read and write, it is vital to have a strong knowledge of the structure of language and how languages are learned. Therefore, the most useful degree is in linguistics. Having acquired this knowledge, several different careers become possible, such as becoming a pre-K or school teacher, ESL teacher, community worker, etc.

Digital Tools & Apps to Improve Literacy

In order to help people with low literacy improve their reading skills, companies are leveraging technology to create tools that are both educational and engaging. Below are some examples of these tools.

Aesop's Quest

This game uses Aesop's Fables to teach users spelling, parts of speech, homophones, synonyms and antonyms.


LightSail helps teachers provide literacy support by creating customized libraries that have in-text assessments. As teachers get the data they need to monitor students' progress, students earn badges that show increased skills.


This site is a visual thesaurus that displays synonyms of entered words, along with color codes that illustrate parts of speech and relationships.

Opposite Ocean

Game that teaches antonyms.

Spinout Blue

This app is geared toward primary and secondary school students who need extra help with reading. Includes stories to keep users interested.

Words, words,

Quizzes users on over 2,000 words and increases the difficulty level as their skills improve.

Grammar Up

Users can improve their grammar, word choice and vocabulary with this app. Emphasis is on words used in the workplace.


This tool allows users to transform websites into clickable dictionaries.

Literacy Advocacy Resources & Organizations

Everybody Wins!

This organization provides mentoring services and book clubs for children in low-income areas.

International Literacy Association

ILA creates literacy programs around the world, publishes books on literacy education, and provides resources like lesson plans.


Provides training to college students to teach reading to preschool children in low-income neighborhoods.

Learning Disabilities Association of America

Works to empower those with learning disabilities, as well as the educators who work with them.

Literacy Research Association

Comprised of scholars who conduct evidence-based research on literacy.

National Center for Families Learning

Organizes reading programs geared toward low-income families.

National Center for Learning Disabilities

The NCLD advocates on behalf of students with learning disabilities, their parents, and educators.

National Council of Teachers of English

Promotes literacy by providing support to educators.

National Writing Project

The National Writing Project supports educators who teach writing by providing educational resources, professional development, and access to research designed to improve pedagogical techniques.

Reading Is Fundamental

Provides free paperback books and reading lists to children.

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