The Dangers of Illiteracy

Author: Jill Torrey Emmons

Time: 1 class period
10 minutes to make copies of handout.
Materials: Handout: The Dangers of Illiteracy, poster board or butcher paper.


At this point, students should have a good grasp of the ways in which reading can empower any group of people, regardless of their cultural or economic background. In this final lesson, students will consider a fictional situation in which literacy could spell the difference between life and death. They will also have the opportunity to discuss and write about ways to encourage literacy in special needs communities.

Purpose – The goal of this lesson is to help students apply their newfound understanding of the power of literacy in the context of an environmental health issue.

Students will be able to:
1. Consider and discuss the special needs of a community affected by water contamination.
2. Apply their knowledge of how reading empowers people by creating a literacy program that addresses the special needs of a specific community.

National English Education Standard
Students develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns, and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, geographic regions, and social roles.

Teacher Background
In this hypothetical situation, a community is faced with a significant health risk and is unable to successfully protect themselves from this hazard due to illiteracy. This situation is fictitious, but it touches on the problems of illiteracy and the dangers of arsenic, both of which are very real. To read more on the dangers of arsenic, see: http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/tfacts2.html

Related and Resource Websites

Illiteracy in America: http://indian-river.fl.us/living/services/als/facts.html



1. Before students enter the classroom, write the question of the day on the board: “What is illiteracy?” Give students a few minutes to write down their own definitions of the word, without using a dictionary. After students have had a chance to write a response, have a student use a dictionary to determine the precise definition. Ask the class how their definition differs from the dictionary version, and which they find more useful. Then pose this question to the class: In what situations could illiteracy be dangerous? What if you couldn’t read a posted health warning? What if you couldn’t read an appliance safety manual? What about street signs? Discuss responses and ideas.

2. Explain to the class that today they are going to apply what they have learned about the importance of reading to a situation that could affect a community’s environmental health. Distribute the handout The Dangers of Illiteracy: A Hypothetical Situation, and read the introduction aloud. Have students independently read the bulleted section of the handout, which gives a summary of the fictional situation. Instruct the class that after they have read about this community they should thoughtfully answer the “Questions to Consider” on a separate sheet of paper. Give the class about 15 minutes to do this independent work.

3. For the next 15-20 minutes, students will be working in groups of 3 or 4 to design a solution to the illiteracy problem in Sometown. Ask the students to carefully consider the needs of this community and address each need in their solution. Each group should have some product, for example a poster or a short speech, explaining how reading could empower and protect this community.

Have each group present their solution to Sometown’s illiteracy problem. How would they successfully inform the public of this potential health hazard, and prevent this problem from happening again?

Embedded Assessment
Student solutions should be evaluated with the following criteria in mind:
1. Does the solution address the special needs of this community? (For example, the fact that many of the residents may not primarily speak English?)
2. Does the solution explain how residents will be empowered by reading?
3. Does the solution successfully address the environmental health issue?
4. Does the solution identify ways in which it will solve the illiteracy problem in the long run?

None for today.

Embedded Assessment



PULSE is a project of the Community Outreach and Education Program of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center and is funded by:

NIH/NCRR award #16260-01A1
The Community Outreach and Education Program is part of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center: an NIEHS Award


Supported by NIEHS grant # ES06694

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Last update: November 10, 2009
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