1. Benefits of Literacy

The importance of children’s literacy is difficult to overstate. Research consistently shows that early literacy is the foundation of individuals’ academic achievement, and for many, the foundation of eventual career success. Regardless of their family background, children who arrive to kindergarten ready to learn to read “are generally more successful in grade school” and “less likely to drop out of high school” than their peers who are not equipped with pre-reading fundamentals by age five, according to a 2012 Brookings Institution study (Lahey). Students who are proficient in reading by the end of the third grade–when teachers generally cease teaching students how to read and begin expecting them to read in order to learn about other subjects–are four times more likely to eventually graduate from high school compared with third graders who are not proficient in reading (Annie E. Casey Foundation; U.S. Department of Education). Reading proficiency in third grade predicts students’ success in virtually all academic areas. Since instruction in most subjects involves reading textbooks, handouts, and other media, strong readers are prepared to learn not only in literature and writing classes, but also in science, history, mathematics, and other fields. Children who read often are more likely to pursue advanced courses in high school; they have also been shown to be more likely to participate in organized extracurricular activities throughout grade school to round out their education. According to both the Brookings Institution and the U.S. Department of Education, irrespective of socioeconomic background, proficient readers are more likely than non-proficient readers to find employment after high school, to earn more, and to support themselves better over their lifetimes. Reading therefore not only engenders a rich intellectual and emotional life for children before, during, and after grade school, but also contributes to their financial and physical well-being over the long term.

Literacy benefits society as a whole as well as individuals. As is suggested by the established relationship between reading proficiency and high school graduation, the more literate our society, the better the overall job growth and productivity (Lahey; U.S. Department of Education). The societal return on investment for promoting literacy is excellent–it costs much less to provide books to children and encourage reading than it costs, for example, to provide welfare benefits for those who drop out of high school or to compensate for lower taxes paid by those without high school and college degrees (Bridges). Literacy also improves society by reducing crime. Individuals who attain higher levels of education, which is predicated on reading ability, are less likely to be in prison at some point in their lives (Bridges). The U.S. Department of Education confirms that crime rates are reduced as reading levels improve, which both promotes safety and reduces costs associated with the criminal justice system and with incarceration. Additionally, society benefits from literacy because strong readers are better equipped to participate in a democracy, where reading and writing play an important role in the circulation of ideas: literate citizens can more effectively learn about political issues, articulate a stance on an issue, and act as informed voters (Murnane, et al.).

The importance of literacy to individuals and to society is likely only to increase with the social, economic, and political demands of the twenty-first century. As Murnane, et al., point out, jobs today increasingly require not only the basic literacy skill of decoding texts, but also “advanced literacy,” which involves the ability to read for knowledge, synthesize information, evaluate arguments, and learn new subjects (“Literacy Challenges” 3). These same skills are necessary for success in our complex political world, at both the domestic and global level (4). Promoting literacy among young people in the twenty-first century also requires attention to the many different types of digital and print media that we now use to read and write, as well as attention to the diverse ways that literacy functions in different communities, with different languages, values, and customs (Hall, et al.). Our commitment to promoting children’s literacy will play a profound role in shaping the leaders of the future, in politics, in business, in family life, and in all of the other diverse communities of which children will be a part.

Bibliography and Recommended Reading