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Learning to read is a lifelong process--reading initiatives should aim to improve reading standards and outcomes at all stages of life.

Want a stronger workforce? Make reading initiatives multigenerational


Learning to read is a lifelong process--efforts should aim to improve reading standards and outcomes at all stages of life

Key points:

The United States is arguably in the midst of its most profound shift ever over how children learn to read.

Since 2013, according to an analysis, policymakers in 37 states have passed laws or implemented new policies related to reading instruction and stakeholders from scholars and journalists to teachers and parent coalitions have weighed in.

This intense focus on early literacy is significant and making a difference in student proficiency in states like Mississippi, but we contend it may be too narrow.

From the point of view of education organizations like the National Center for Families Learning and the Southern Regional Education Board, early reading is only one piece of the much larger literacy puzzle—a puzzle we must solve as a nation. Learning to read is a lifelong process, and our efforts should aim to improve standards and outcomes at all stages of life, embracing a longitudinal perspective.

Our society cannot wait for this year’s fourth graders, who are benefiting from recent changes in the way we teach reading, to grow up and enter the workforce in 2032. We must act to ensure that children, youth and adults are receiving the literacy education that enables middle-skills workers—those who need more than a high school diploma but less than a college degree—to achieve success. Doing so ensures all workers have the skills to support their families and contribute meaningfully to their communities.

Research shows that about 43 million Americans—nearly one in five adults—read below a third grade reading level. Additionally, fewer than 10 percent of all adults in need of literacy support are currently receiving education services, according to a 2023 report by the Adult Literacy and Learning Impact Network of which NCFL is a member.

Meanwhile, a 2020 study found a significant connection between average yearly income and average reading levels. According to the study, the average income of adults who read at the equivalent of a sixth grade level is $63,000. In contrast, the study found, adults who read at a third to fifth grade level earn an average of $48,000 and those at the lowest literacy levels earn just $34,000 on average.

To sustain and increase economic growth, we need literacy improvements across the age continuum—preschool to adulthood. Only with a comprehensive multigenerational approach to literacy learning will this country see the greatest economic gains at both the micro level, in terms of individual income, and macro level, where an increase in qualified human capital can drive growth nationally.

Early childhood

Investment in early childhood education shows an average return over time of $4 for every dollar spent, thanks in part to reduced needs for special education and increased productivity for families, according to the multiple studies summarized by the Buffet Early Childhood Institute.

To support family relationship-building and child development through play-based learning, NCFL created Play with Purpose, a facilitated playgroup designed for children birth to five and their caregivers. Children and adults learn together alongside other families during weekly sessions and are provided books and supplemental materials to help ensure that learning continues between sessions. Participating families can set and achieve goals around their children’s development and see an increase in their social and emotional skills and language acquisition, both of which support emerging literacy.

Middle and high school

The most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress found that 30 percent of both eighth- and 12th-graders were unable to meet basic reading standards such as determining the meaning of familiar words or identifying explicit details from a text. NAEP long-term trends data also show that average scores for 13-year-old students in 2022 declined 4 points in reading from the previous assessment report in 2020.

To counter this trend, SREB developed the Literacy Ready curriculum and coaches teachers on best practices in helping students read and understand complex texts in different subject areas. A preliminary study of the program in three states during the late 2010s, found that students showed significant improvement on the ACT English and reading exams, with the average score increasing by 1.3 points and 1.5 points, respectively.

Postsecondary, workforce and adult learning

As our nation continues to automate basic retail and manufacturing jobs, we are seeing an increase in middle-skill jobs. These workers will need stronger literacy skills to train for more advanced positions and to read instructions and guides for the technology they will manage.

Learning to read is a lifetime activity that pays dividends for children, youth, adults and our communities. That’s why NCFL developed the four-component model of family literacy, which meets families where they are to support adults in achieving their education and workforce goals, provide educational programming to children, and bring both generations together for joint learning activities. In one study of the model in action, over 90 percent of parents made progress towards their adult education or employment goals.

Now, more than ever, it is critical that we acknowledge the vital role literacy plays at every stage of life. Together, we can do more than improve fourth grade reading scores; we can commit to focusing on literacy gains longitudinally, from young children to adults reskilling for new careers, as an investment in the workforce of tomorrow.

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