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Widespread Illiteracy – Its Seriousness, Shocking Extent, Cause, and Proven Solution
Time required to carefully read all of this article at a normal reading rate: less than 20 min.
Can you spare 19 min. for something really important to you and our nation (even if you don’t know that yet)?
Janitors have been fired because they cannot read an after-hours note from their boss with special clean-up instructions. Families have been evicted from their apartment, even in the coldest part of winter, when the apartment manager, who wants to rent the apartment at a price he knows the renter cannot pay, falsely claims that the rental contract allows eviction if a crying baby disturbs other tenants. The evicted tenants do not object fearing their illiteracy will be exposed. The taking of medicines poses a danger to those who cannot read the instructions on the medicine bottle. Children who have medical emergencies face life-and-death situations if their illiterate parents have become lost because they cannot read the street signs. These and hundreds of similar “horror stories” occur all around us every day – most of them without our knowledge.
I want to tell you about one of America’s dirty little secrets that you probably haven’t heard about: widespread functional illiteracy and the poverty that such illiteracy causes. When I tell you how bad it is, you may find it hard to believe, so I need to start by giving you the reasons why you probably didn’t know.
Why We Do Not Know the Seriousness of Illiteracy
First, I must define functional illiteracy. Almost every American can read at least a few hundred simple words they learned in the first three grades in school. But if that is all anyone can read, they cannot read well enough to get by as well as they should in our increasingly complex society. They do not like to read and seldom do so. As a result, there are at least 34 different types of serious physical, mental, emotional, medical and financial problems they must constantly endure–problems that we would consider a crisis if they occurred to us. Many simple tasks we take for granted are beyond the abilities of most illiterates. There are several definitions of functional illiteracy, but the best definition is: functional illiteracy is the inability to read and write well enough to hold an above-poverty-level-wage job. This is because employers have a financial interest in being accurate in determining an employee’s ability to read and write. Each employee must be worth more to the employer’s profitability than the cost of their wages. No other compiler of literacy data has such a strong financial incentive to be accurate.
Second, illiterates are almost always embarrassed about their inability to read well and have developed numerous coping methods of getting by in life while hiding their illiteracy. Community leaders in areas with a large number of illiterates do not want that fact publicized. They fear that it will give people they perceive as their “enemies”–racists and class-conscious persons–ammunition against them. Chances are that many of your acquaintances–without your knowledge–are functionally illiterate.
Third, there is a certain amount of natural separation of readers and non-readers. Because of lower incomes for families where one or both adults are illiterate, they live in lower cost homes, which are separated from more expensive homes by zoning laws. Also, there is a certain amount of separation in the workplace according to job functions and in leisure activities according to reading abilities.
Fourth, most low-income families have more than one employed adult. If one of the employed adults in the family is literate, that adult can pull the family above the poverty threshold. If neither adult in the family is literate, the family is very likely to be in poverty.
Fifth, most low-income families receive financial assistance from government agencies, friends, charities, and relatives in other families.
Sixth, there are four reasons why you may not know information about literacy from the media: (1) the results of a literacy study may not have appeared in the media, (2) you may not have seen the media reports about the literacy rate, (3) you saw media reports and didn’t believe them or forgot them, or (4) you saw reports on literacy rate that inaccurately minimized the seriousness of the problem. Many educators, politicians, and members of the media have a short-term interest in disbelieving statistics that show the teaching of reading to be inadequate.
What Percentage of U.S. Adults are Functionally Illiterate Or In poverty?
Now for the bottom line: What percentage of U.S. adults are functional illiterates? What percentage of functional illiterates are in poverty, and why are they in poverty?
The most comprehensive and statistically accurate study of U.S. adult literacy ever commissioned by the U.S. government was a five-year, $14 million study involving lengthy interviews of 26,049 adults.The interviewees were statistically balanced for age, gender, ethnicity, and locationto be representative of the entire U.S. population. The study statistically balanced urban, suburban, and rural data from twelve states across the U.S. and included 1100 prisoners from 80 prisons. The study, titled “Adult Literacy in America,” was released in early September, 1993. An 1148 word story about the report appeared on the front page of the New York Times on September 9, 1993. This story did not mention the difficult of learning to read, the poverty level of illiterates, the reasons for poverty, or the statistical balancing in the report. In effect, the New York Times story minimized the seriousness of the problem of illiteracy and even had several errors in quoting the number of illiterates and percentages of the various levels of illiteracy. A 304 word story in the Washington Post appeared the same day. In effect, it also minimized the seriousness of the problem of illiteracy. The Washington Post article (and perhaps also the New York Times article) was syndicated to other newspapers. A 2006 follow-up report titled “A First Look at the Literacy of America’s Adults in the 21st Century” with 19,714 interviewees prepared by the same groups who issued the 1993 report showed no overall statistically significant improvement in U.S. adult literacy.
The 1993 report divided the interviewees into five literacy levels, according to how the interviewees responded to written material they were given to read. Although these reports showed the average number of days per year each of the five groups worked and the average salary per hour they earned when they worked, the report did not take the next logical step and calculate the average earnings per year by literacy level. I used a simple ratio multiplication calculation for the groups and then combined the two least literate groups and compared with the combinations of the three most literate levels. These calculations proved that (1) 48.7% of U.S. adults (the two least literate groups) earn less than the U.S. Census Bureau’s 1993 threshold poverty level and are therefore functionally illiterate, (2) 31.2% of these functional illiterates are in poverty, (the percentage of all adults in poverty–not just the illiterates–is 31.2% of 48.7% or 15.2%, which closely agrees with estimates of total U.S. adult poverty from other sources) and (3) functional illiterates are more than twice as likely to be in poverty as a result of their illiteracy as for all other reasons combined. The details of these calculations are clearly shown in Chapter 2 and Appendix 9 of my book Let’s End Our Literacy Crisis, Revised Edition (see the last section of this article).
Perhaps these statistics do not describe people you know. But are we really familiar with the thousands of low-income people around us who need our help?
Why is the Illiteracy Rate So High?
Most people have a certain amount of compassion for those in poverty among us. You’ve perhaps heard the saying, “Give a man a fish, and you’ve fed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you’ve fed him for a lifetime.” With that in mind, how can we be of most help to functional illiterates? Quite obviously, we need to know why they are functionally illiterate. Many people blame the illiterate for his or her illiteracy. We often think that if someone does not learn to read it is because they are not trying hard enough or because they are not smart enough. Is that really true? Teachers, politicians, and the media want that to be true because they do not know what to do about the problem.
Observe what Rudolph Flesch states on pages 76-77 of his book, Why Johnny Can’t Read,
“Generally speaking, students in our schools are about two years behind students of the same age in other countries. This is not a wild accusation of the American educational system; it is an established, generally known fact… Americans take two years longer to learn how to read–and reading, of course, is the basis for achievement in all other subjects.”
Most of us learn to read as children and have long since forgotten the difficulty we had. Our eyes skip easily over a multitude of traps for beginning readers. Listen to what Sir James Pitman says about learning to read, on p. 38 of his book Alphabets and Reading, “[T]he child is expected to take on a task that is formidable for all and for some impossible: to analyze what is scarcely analyzable, to conjure abstractions and generalizations from a printed medium whose associations are in fact neither invariable nor consistent and thus doubly irrational.” What this means is that only the best students–about half of them–learn to read in school. If they make it to adulthood without learning to read, Laubach Literacy International found that all but the most severely mentally handicapped can learn to read, but it takes about a year of one-on-one tutor training. Statistics show that less than one percent of non-reading adults ever take enough tutor training to become literate (see Harman and Hunter, Adult Literacy in the United States, p. 37).
Although English is considered an alphabetic language, it is more accurately described as a logogram language. In the same way that words in Chinese picture-writing are logograms (certain strokes in a certain position represent a word), words in English are logograms (certain letters in a certain order represent words). If a logical definition of phonemic words is used: each phoneme is spelled with only one specific letter or letter combination, only about 20 percent of English words are phonemic. The problem is that there is absolutely no way to know which words are phonemic and which are not.
How inconsistent and irrational is English spelling? Professor Julius Nyikos of Washington and Jefferson College did an extensive study of the way the phonemes–the smallest sound used to distinguish between syllables or words in a language or dialect–are spelled in five desk-size dictionaries (see Julius Nyikos, The Fourteenth LACUS [Linguistic Association of Canada and the United States] Forum 1987, pp. 146-163). He found that there are 1,768 ways of spelling forty phonemes in English. We only need forty ways of spelling forty phonemes–one each. There are no spelling rules in English that do not have an exception. Some of the exceptions have exceptions! A computer programmed with all the English spelling rules was able to correctly spell only about half of a list of common words.
That being the case, the only way to learn to read English is to learn every word in our reading vocabulary one-at-a-time by rote memory or by repeated use of the word. It takes most beginning students at least two years to learn enough words to enable them to read well enough to understand what they read so that they can add new words to their vocabulary without being totally confused.
What Is the Obvious Solution to the Problem?
Dr. Frank Charles Laubach, founder of Laubach Literacy International, went all around the world teaching adult illiterates to read in more than 300 languages. In fact, he invented spelling systems for more than 220 languages. He found that in about 95% of the languages he could teach students to read fluently in from one to twenty days. In some of the simpler languages, such as one or more dialects of the Philippine language, he could teach them to read in one hour! (see Laubach, Forty Years With the Silent Billion, p. 103) In about 98% of the languages he could teach beginning readers to read fluently in less than three months (see Sanford S. Silverman, Spelling For the 21st Century, p. v). This was all possible because these languages were consistent and logical–almost every time you see a certain letter or letter combination it represented the same phoneme. Dr. Laubach stated on page 77 of his book, Forty Years With the Silent Billion, “If we spelled English phonetically, American children could be taught to read in a week.” That may be somewhat optimistic. Some of the better students could learn to read in a week, but every student except the most severely mentally handicapped could certainly learn to read in less than three months. The grammar and syntax of English is neither the easiest nor the most difficult. It is, however, easier than many of the European languages, almost all of which can be learned in less than three months. The best illustration of the truth of that statement is Dr. Rudolph Flesch’s explanation, in his book Why Johnny Still Can’t Read, pp. 167-168,that Russian schoolchildren, for example, are taught to read 46 of the 130 national languages of Russian–in first grade! There is no reading instruction, as such, after first grade.
If we spelled our words the way they sound, the way more than 98% of all other alphabetic languages do, we could learn to read by learning the spelling of 38 phonemes and how to blend them together into words, instead of having to learn the spelling of every word in our reading vocabulary. Literacy in English requires knowledge of the spelling of about 20,000 words. Well educated people have reading vocabularies of more than 70,000 words.
English is now spoken by more than 1.3 billion people around the world (see Gwynne Dyer, “English Poses Little Threat to Many Other Languages,” The Salt Lake Tribune, Oct 16, 1997, p. A 11). It is spoken by more people than the dialect of any other language. It is used more than any other language to speak with people who do not know the speaker’s native language. It is estimated, however, that about 600 million people around the world who speak English cannot read English very well and are functionally illiterate in English. There are more than 93 million functional illiterates in the U.S. alone. If we spelled our words the way they sound, the way most of the world does, hundreds of millions of people could easily learn to read English in less than three months.
What are the Benefits of Ending Illiteracy For Those of Us Who Can Read?
I will mention four benefits. If you think about it, you can probably think of many others.
First, you will benefit emotionally if you are concerned that your loved ones are, or will become, functionally illiterate.
Second, you will benefit financially because illiteracy is now costing every U.S. adult at least $5186 per year as a result of (1) taxes for government programs that illiterates use and for truancy, juvenile delinquency, and crime directly related to illiteracy, and (2) higher prices for consumer goods due to illiterates in the workplace.
Third, since illiteracy affects all businesses to some extent, some of them seriously, you will benefit if your employer’s business improves or if other businesses in which you invest time or money improve when illiteracy is ended.
Fourth, you will benefit by ending illiteracy if our nation improves the trade balance, national relationships, and our national employment by improving written communication between nations.
Why Is Spelling Reform the Best Solution to Illiteracy?
When Dr. Samuel Johnson issued his well-received dictionary in 1755, he made the linguistic mistake of freezing the spelling of words instead of freezing the spelling of the phonemes , as an alphabetic language is logically supposed to do. The spelling of each of the words was in almost every case the way the word was spelled in one of the eight languages which contributed words to English prior to 1755. Coming from Celtic, Norse, Icelandic, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, German, Danish, and French, they obviously had different spellings for many of the phonemes. As you may know, the pronunciation of many words changes with time, so what was bad in 1755 is even worse today. Furthermore, as Henry Hitchings explains in his book, The Secret Life of Words, since 1755 we have “borrowed” words–and usually their spelling–from about 350 other languages.
As stated before, the only way to learn to read English is to memorize or learn by repeated use every word in our reading vocabulary one-at-a-time. In simpler times, namely before the 1920s, that is exactly what happened. Since that time we have developed dozens of pleasurable activities which divert students from the time needed to learn the spelling. Music on radios, CDs, iPods, and rock concerts, movies on TV and DVD players, the internet, video games, new athletic and extra-curricular school activities all take time away from the boring memorization of English words. There are also many new negative influences to distract students, such as gang activities, new drugs, and more homes broken by divorce due to loosened divorce laws in the 20th century.
Use of the whole-word method of teaching began in the 1920s partly in hopes of avoiding the drudgery for both the student and the teacher of learning the spelling of the words one-at-a-time. Although there have been numerous attempts at improving the teaching of reading in the last eighty years–particularly since the April 1983 “Nation At Risk” report–all of these efforts have been aimed at overcoming the difficulties of English spelling through better textbooks, better teaching methods, better teacher training, and better student motivation methods. In other words, for the last eighty years we have been fighting the symptoms of the problem–the difficulty of learning the spelling of the words–rather than solving the problem by making the spelling simple, consistent, and logical. This is similar to taking aspirin, decongestants, and cough medicine for the symptoms of pneumonia rather than taking penicillin to cure it.
Consider these facts about spelling reform:
First, dozens of scholars for the last 250 years or more have recommended spelling reform.
Second, thirty-three nations, both smaller and larger than the U.S., both advanced and developing nations, have simplified their spelling.
Third, a simpler spelling system has been proven effective by Dr. Laubach’s work in more than 300 alphabetic languages. Nowhere in any of Dr. Laubach’s books did he mention any students who did not learn to read, and they learned in less than three months in 98% or more of the languages. Most of the 51.3% of U.S. adults who learned to read (that is 100 minus 48.7% functionally illiterate) required at least two years to learn.
Fourth, when you learned I was promoting spelling reform, you may have thought of reasons why it will not work, but several distinguished scholars have thoroughly debunked all reasonable objections to spelling reform.
Fifth, the need for a higher literacy rate is greater than ever in our increasingly complex world. There are very few jobs available that do not require literacy.
But here is the kicker: Sixth, spelling reform has never been tried in English!
The Solution to Functional Illiteracy
A solution to functional illiteracy has been discovered and perfected. It is a simple, consistent, and logical spelling system such as Dr. Laubach recommended. Also a computer program which can quickly change up to 25 pages at a time of traditional spelling to the proposed spelling system has been made freely available to the public. This computer program has an English word database of more than 514,000 words. It will convert over 99% of anything fed into it and will flag any words not converted for manual conversion. Websites have also been developed which detail many of the facts about the proposed spelling system, including lengthy examples of the proposed spelling system and ten irrefutable reasons why it is superior to any of the dozens of proposed spelling systems which have been proposed since the 1800s. The proposed spelling system is also described on Wikipedia. It is so easy that present readers can learn the system in less than ten minutes. This is because 30 of the spellings of the 38 phonemes (79% of them) used in the proposed system are the most used spelling of that phoneme in English. The problem with traditional spelling is that there is not only a most used but also a next most used, next most used, etc. Every English phoneme has at least four spellings. The phoneme U, as in the word nut, has at least 60 spellings! If that isn’t nutty, please tell me what is. The other 8 are the expected spelling of the phonemes. For example, most people expect the letter F to have the sound as in the word fan, but more often it has a V sound, entirely because of the simple word of, and people expect the letter S to have the sound as in the word set but more often it has a Z sound because of the common words is and was and for plurals such as bags. Most present readers will be able to return to their present reading rates after three or four months of familiarization.
The original version of my book was one of six finalists out of 49 entrants in the Education/Academics category of the USA.BookNews.com Best Books Award competition with 1000 to 2000 total entrants and one out of 8 finalists in the Education category of the Foreword Magazine Book-of-the-Year Award competition with 1540 total entrants. Dr. Michael Shaughnessy, professor of Special Education at Eastern New Mexico University, sent me an email after reading my book which said, “I have read the book, from the local public library and I agree with you 100 percent.”
Have you written and tried to market a book? What is the most important part of marketing a book? Publicity! People have to know about your book before they will buy it. The American public is the most generous and compassionate group of people on earth. They have taken part in several grass-roots campaigns in the last couple of centuries. I am convinced that if enough people carefully, honestly read my book and take the action the book recommends, we can enable hundreds of millions of people around the world to lift themselves out of the poverty that their lack of education dooms them to. If you will use your influence to help further our humanitarian project, you can have the satisfaction of knowing you helped the grass-roots movement to get started. If you personally know a celebrity or any person with a great amount of influence, informing them of our humanitarian project will be a help beyond measure.
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