Hawaii Has A Literacy Problem. Here’s What We Can Do - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Arienne Stevenson

Arienne Stevenson is a literature teacher. She is passionate about the power of stories for young readers in understanding themselves and the world around them.


One in six Hawaii residents struggle to read (meaning they can only read elementary texts). This might be close to the U.S. average, but it’s a stark fall from grace for a region that was the most literate in the world in the mid-1800s.

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Measures to improve the problem have emerged, but one piece of the puzzle has been missing so far: technology.

Although Hawaii’s literacy problem isn’t just about the numbers — it’s the story behind them.

Not everyone on the island speaks English as their primary language; one in four Hawaii residents speak a language other than English at home, which is higher than the U.S. average.

Another factor is the prevalence of social issues like homelessness — this problem is improving, with Hawaii no longer being the state with the most homelessness in the U.S. But it’s still much higher than the nation’s average; 44.9 per 10,000 are homeless, compared to 17 per 10,000 in the U.S. as a whole. 

These kinds of problems cause instability and make it less likely children will have access to the right resources or attend school. Not great for literacy.

What’s Being Done So Far

Hawaii’s literacy problem hasn’t gone unnoticed. Fifty years ago, the nonprofit Hawaii Literacy was launched. The organization runs four programs, which aim to help the non-literate of all ages:

  • Adult literacy — free one-on-one tutoring for reading and writing
  • Bookmobile — a mobile library that takes books and other materials across the state.
  • English language learner — free classes in English.
  • Family literacy libraries — community centers with books, activities, and homework help.

However, these initiatives function in-person and took a hit during the pandemic. They’re also not making effective use of technology — could this be what Hawaii is missing?

Amy Pruong stands inside the Hawaii Literacy Bookmobile with books on shelves.
Amy Truong stands inside the Hawaii Literacy Bookmobile. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

How Edtech Could Help

Although these initiatives are admirable, it’s time to take things to the next level.

Educational technology (edtech) has improved leaps and bounds over the last few years. It now offers the potential to create personalized learning journeys, offer more engaging ways to learn, and use AI to adapt to an individual. 

For example, Simbi’s software narrates stories to readers and uses digital highlights to help the reader identify which words are being spoken and what they sound like. Other tools create games, songs, and interactive exercises to help learners get to grips with texts.

This may also be a preferable solution for adults who don’t want to admit openly that they struggle with literacy. 

It would be tempting to shrug the problem off as inevitable or say that everything is gradually improving, but it would be foolish not to take advantage of the solutions that exist. 

As electronic devices become more accessible and educational technology more advanced, it only makes sense to bring them to the forefront of literacy efforts.

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About the Author

Arienne Stevenson

Arienne Stevenson is a literature teacher. She is passionate about the power of stories for young readers in understanding themselves and the world around them.


Latest Comments (0)

As a HIDOE ELA teacher and now school librarian, I agree that ed tech is a valuable tool in the literacy and educational toolbox. But it's not the solution to the problem. All children need access to trained, highly-qualified teachers in the classroom. We need to invest in our teachers and our public schools if we want to improve literacy outcomes. Additionally, are you aware that only half of our HIDOE schools have highly qualified librarians on staff? Ensuring that all our children have access to well-stocked libraries staffed by professional librarians will also be an important part of the literacy puzzle. There is no silver bullet to creating a literate society. It requires a multi-pronged solution. But one of the most important factors is a public school system that is valued and supported. 

Caitlinrebekah · 1 month ago

Worked really hard to earn advanced degrees in college.  After retiring tried to volunteer for the literacy program several times, but on each occasion it never materialized for one reason or another and no one followed up with me.  I’ll try again later, but it’s been frustrating.

ddperry · 1 month ago

The premise of this article fails in explaining why becoming average is a problem. Have our literacy numbers been dropping and we are average and need to do something before we drop to below average, or are we just going to be at around the average literacy rate for the US? While I would agree that I would rather have my population more literate than not, society would rather our children watch movies on cell phones than read. Too hard to insert commercial items into reading like you can a movie or tv show. Since parents allow their children cell phones, they too would rather their children watch movies than read or do homework. It seems the article is focused on how to get more people interested/motivated to be literate rather than making sure that the options available are sufficient to do so. There is no evidence that the current options are insufficient as there is no data on how many people actually care about being literate. 

tws808 · 1 month ago

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