The State of Reading and Literacy in the United States

Kathryn Starke
Kathryn Starke
Nationally recognized literacy consultant, reading specialist, and the creator of Tackle Reading, a philanthropic reading initiative supported by the NFL.
A teacher and his students lay on the library floor doing independent reading.

The Struggles of Literacy for Students and Adults

While the United States is considered the most powerful and one of the most technological advanced countries in the world, it is not the most literate country in the world. In fact, the United States has struggled in literacy for students and adults alike for the last decade. There have even been recent court cases in America debating whether literacy should be a right.

In 2019, the NAEP reported that only 37% of nine-year-old children in America were reading on grade level. The percentage drops down to 22% in low-income areas. ProLiteracy, a nonprofit organization, reported that 43 million adults in America can’t read above a third-grade level. While literacy has been an issue for a while now, post-pandemic data and national media attention have clearly indicated that we are now in a literacy crisis.

Every school district in the country was responsible for developing their own plans to deliver instruction to K-12 students during a global pandemic. Some schools stayed virtual for 14 months, some ran a hybrid model of instruction for students, and other schools opened in-person as soon as the 2020-2021 school year began. The disparity of instructional practice during this unprecedented event yielded various learning outcomes.

This fall, the NAEP reported that reading scores declined by five points from 2020-2022, the largest drop in scores in thirty years. McKinsey & Company completed an analysis that determined that the pandemic left children, on average four months behind in reading. The gaps have also widened between historically disadvantaged students and students of color.

How to Combat the Challenges of Literacy 

Students currently in second grade and above are still experiencing the effects of unfinished learning in literacy caused by the global pandemic. Classroom teachers, reading specialists, and interventionists are working to combat these challenges in literacy daily. Schools are seeking certified reading specialists to help teachers, students, and retired teachers willing to become reading tutors for identified students.

Six states and New York City have designed state literacy plans to combat literacy challenges in their K-12 schools for their school districts to implement and execute. These plans are often citing the science of reading as their instructional practice. The science of reading is not new information in education. This research-based approach to teaching reading has existed for decades and used by reading specialists to help reluctant and struggling readers become successful, independent readers. It focuses on the foundations of reading and the five pillars of reading that are essential in every literacy lesson to achieve reading success.

Unless a teacher earns a master’s degree in literacy or obtains a reading certification, the science of reading is not part of undergraduate teaching programs. Currently, district literacy coaches and curriculum coordinators are providing professional development in schools on the subject matter. Recommended relevant reading resources, including A Touchdown in Reading: An Educator’s Guide to Literacy Instruction published by Creative Minds Publications, are helping teachers around the country understand the literacy while increasing reading rates and literacy success.

The Future of Literacy 

If we want the United States to become and maintain a highly literate country, there is a lot of work that needs to be done. Elementary school teachers have been asked what they want literacy instruction and student literacy to look like in the future. Responses include that all children read on grade level, a literature-rich school exists, and that kids are excited about reading.

They want a quality school library, increased family literacy engagement, engaging literacy lesson plans, more qualified reading interventionists, and all of the materials and manipulatives needed to teach effective reading instruction. We should not have to wait any longer to make these wishes to become a reality. All of these things can and should begin today for every single teacher and student in America.

We need to improve teacher preparation in literacy in undergraduate programs in education at the college and university level. We also need to provide more differentiated support and personalized literacy consulting for new teachers. Anyone with zero to five years of experience should be considered a new teacher, especially if they started teaching during the pandemic.

In addition to implementing the science of reading and best literacy practices to raise the U.S. literacy rate, we need to understand that motivation, background knowledge, and a culturally diverse classroom library are also essential factors in the teaching of reading. We need to recognize that we need to focus on strategies for teaching children to read instead of programs to teach children to read.

A high level of early literacy skills is a strong indicator for students’ reading success in third grade and beyond. Therefore, we need to put our strongest literacy instructors in kindergarten, first, and second grade where the foundations of reading are taught. Research shows that students who are not reading on grade level by third grade were four times more likely to drop out of school. We need to put more financial support in elementary school literacy instruction to prevent this from happening. Further literacy support is essential.

Reading is a life skill and the one content area necessary to succeed in all subject areas, including math, science, and technology. The United States needs to emphasize reading education to become a powerful country in literacy, education, and the preparation of our students, the future leaders of America.

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