Read, read, then read some more

“A room without books is like a body without a soul.” — Marcus Tullius Cicero

We have a critical shortage in this country that could severely hamper our economy and threatens America’s standing in the world.

Not semiconductors or fuel or truck drivers, nurses, or teachers.

No. We have a severe shortage of proficient young readers.

And that’s a very bad thing. Young kids who can’t read well — including comprehending what they’re reading — tend to do poorly in all subjects later in their school career, because you have to read textbooks and other materials in all subjects after about third grade. If you can’t read your math textbook, for example, you’re not likely to do well in math.

Kids who struggle to read are more likely to drop out of high school, which means they’re less likely to earn a livable wage into adulthood and more likely to depend on government assistance to get by.

Every such case drains on the economy and holds back progress.

And there could be a lot of such cases in the future.

Last year, just a third of fourth-graders around the country tested as proficient or advanced readers on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and 37% scored below NAEP’s basic reading levels. Last year’s average fourth-grade reading scores were down from 2019 and no better than 1992 scores.

Here in Michigan, only about 41% of third-graders scored as proficient readers on state standardized tests last school year. In Northeast Michigan, only about 39% scored as proficient or better in reading. While that’s better than before the coronavirus pandemic, that still means roughly six in 10 third-graders failed to meet basic standards in reading.

I don’t put all my faith in standardized tests. The tests can be flawed and some kids grasp subjects well but test poorly.

But, even accounting for that, the fact that just two out of every five kids meet state standards shows we have a real problem.

And I mean a real problem.

In 2018, the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences rounded up the research on the link between third-grade reading success and later educational progress. The research showed one in six kids — or about 17% — who were not proficient readers in third grade later dropped out of high school, a rate four times higher than the dropout rate for proficient readers. For the kids who scored poorest on reading tests, that figure climbed to 23%.

Seventeen percent may seem like a small number, but, here in Michigan, that would mean nearly 10,000 of last school year’s third-graders likely won’t earn their diplomas.

Just imagine what our communities would look like if we had 10,000 more people with high school diplomas. How many more of them might go on to college? How many more of them might fill critical jobs where we currently face shortages? What might they do with their lives, and what might they do for their communities, their state, their nation?

Thankfully, this is one national crisis each of us can do something about.

All we have to do is read — and start young.

Research has proven that reading to your kids from birth helps improve reading skills later in life. Teach your kids to read well before they get to school. Once they can read, have them read to you instead of you reading to them so they can get in the practice. Then talk to them about what they just read to help them comprehend it. Do that every night before bed and any time you’re not doing something else. Get rid of the screens and replace them with the pages. Let your kids see you reading.

The government can do some things, like investing in early education so more kids can enroll in preschool, which has been shown to have lifelong benefits (and has the added benefit of helping to overcome a shortage of day cares that’s preventing some parents from working). Schools can invest in interventionist teachers who provide extra support to youngsters who struggle to read on their own.

Charities can invest, too. When I lived in Battle Creek, I participated in a program called Reading Buddies funded by the United Way through which community mentors visited schools with low reading scores and sat with kids while the kids read out loud. The program had very real positive impacts on reading scores in the schools where the buddies visited and, when I left Battle Creek, the United Way had expanded the program to additional schools.

But it has to begin at the home, where parents must instill a culture of reading from an early age.

Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-354-3112 or jhinkley@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.


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