The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

A teacher works on reading with a small group of students in Mississippi.
A teacher works on reading with a small group of students in Mississippi. Credit: Jackie Mader

Despite the claims of those who propose to “disrupt” education with video lessons and a well-intentioned emphasis on STEM, reading remains the backbone of a real education.

Unlike other species, humans use language as a kind of operating system for our big brains. Our intellectual abilities evolved in concert with our linguistic abilities.

Words act as handles that allow our minds to manipulate ideas, and written language invents syntaxes that go far beyond anything in spoken communication.

That’s why advanced reading correlates so highly with critical thinking skills. Mastering advanced syntax allows our brains to work on a higher level. When we read Charles Darwin, George Eliot, Stephen J. Gould or Toni Morrison, what they say increases our knowledge, but how they say it makes us smarter. For rapidly developing adolescent brains, engagement with great minds through their words activates deeper cognitive abilities.

But fewer than half of Americans graduate from high school proficient in reading.

Related: Doctors offer a prescription for early literacy

Teachers have known this for a long time and are dismayed by the data. Not only does advanced reading still offer the best, most sophisticated access to information, it also offers a crucial way to develop our minds. And the scenario is more dire than even many instructors know: As robots replace people in all forms of repetitive work, from factories to operating rooms, education’s mandate grows: we must get better at thinking. Everything from our politics to our test scores betrays scant evidence of success.

“We live in the Information Age. It’s time we became a nation of readers so that more than 13 percent of us can access the numerous benefits that thousands of years of culture have entrusted to written words.”

But there is still time: While the brains of other species enter the world all but fully formed, ours continue to grow and develop for at least 25 years. Mosquito, gazelle and even chimpanzee brains launch them into life with fully evolved adaptations to handle given environments; ours grow and adapt in response to whatever the world throws at us. We can strengthen our brains, if we’re willing to challenge them, and advanced reading offers the best way to do that.

Is that even remotely possible in the age of social media? Yes.

Snapchat and Instagram exploit our innate fear of missing out and lust for novel stimuli in the same way that sugary sodas prey on the brain stem’s desire for instant calories. Though not everyone loves salad, nobody subsists on cupcakes and sugary drinks alone.

Related: Can literacy coaches help solve Mississippi’s education woes?

We can’t put every 15-year-old in front of Neil deGrasse Tyson or Yaa Gyasi and expect them to succeed. Tim Shanahan, Daniel Willingham and the other panelists who recently convened to give context to the Nation’s Report Card numbers rightly pointed out the roles played by missing content knowledge and vocabulary in hindering comprehension.

But even back when every school taught civics and American history, very few students attained adult literacy. Many people believe that social media and smartphones have diminished our reading abilities. Others blame schools and teachers for “failing” our kids, but the data suggest otherwise. The recently released Nation’s Report Card numbers confirm what educators already know. While fourth- and eighth-grade reading results show tiny improvements, 12th-grade scores went down slightly, and real illiteracy (“below basic” achievement) rose from 25 percent to 28 percent. Of 250 million American adults, 87 percent have high school diplomas. Thirty percent have graduated from a four-year college. Thirteen percent read on a “proficient” adult level.

Reading has always been a vital pleasure for a very small minority.

The need for better early childhood and elementary school interventions is well documented, but that does not imply giving up on adolescents. Getting more fourth-graders reading on grade-level can only help, but the elephant in our educational room is the weak literacy of even our college graduates. Explicit reading instruction that currently ends in second grade needs to expand and continue to all grades — especially middle and high school. Close reading skills that successful readers take for granted must be actively imparted to all students.

The “complexity ladder” approach to adolescent reading, which has never worked, needs to go. Young people smell condescension and pandering a mile away. Canned or dumbed down content won’t fly. We must provide access to diverse, authentic texts that we ourselves find meaningful while teaching students advanced reading skills to comprehend them.

Finally, meaningful instruction in both content and skills followed by authentic practice must replace most “test prep.” Doing away with standards won’t help our children, but giving them meaningful preparation by advancing their reading abilities will.

We live in the Information Age. It’s time we became a nation of readers so that more than 13 percent of us can access the numerous benefits that thousands of years of culture have entrusted to written words. Doing so also has the fringe benefit of opening a digital superhighway away from the tyranny of comments and “likes.”

People who say the golden age of reading is over are wrong. That’s because there was never any golden age when people read more. The truth is there’s only the reading future that our democracy and economy require. And that future must start now.

This story about literacy was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Matt Bardin is the founder and CEO of Zinc Learning Labs. He is a former New York City public school teacher and a founding director of Teach For America.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

1 Letter

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email address. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

  1. I couldn’t agree more that reading is indeed fundamental for any nation that wishes to become a nation of equal learners; however, I strongly disagree with your suggestion that only “highbrow” authors such as “Charles Darwin, George Eliot, Stephen J. Gould or Toni Morrison” should make up the bulk of our reading because what they say “makes us smarter” because these authors have “great minds.” For starters, they are hardly the choice of your average reader. When it comes to children, frequent studies show that children who read for fun, with books they choose themselves, often are the ones who become successful readers and writers. (Of course, there are those who strongly oppose allowing children to choose their own readings; however, given the dwindling number of child readers, I feel this argument is a nonstarter.)

    To address the current crisis, we may want to begin with getting children and young adults to read anything. In my own experience, I grew up in a household where neither of my parents were college educated; however, they were frequent readers whose examples shaped my reading habits and those of my siblings. We lived for the Sunday comics and the expired copies of popular magazines my father brought home from the reading room where he worked. My frequent trips to the children’s section of the public library opened my reading world even further and no doubt smoothed the leap from my choice of readings to the school-assigned readings that included Evangeline, The Rape of the Lock, and Tartuffe. Today, free newspapers can be found in newsstands throughout most urban areas. Also, to help spark children’s interest in reading, the DC Public Library mails free books to children age five and under on request.

    At the high school/college level, Open Court Publishers’ immensely successful Popular Culture and Philosophy Series has proved an excellent tool through which adult readers learn to examine the impact of popular culture through the lens of their favorite television shows and/or movies. (For those concerned about intellectual depth, one of the “complaints” is that it is much more “scholarly” than some readers anticipated!)

    I truly believe that once children and young adults establish the habit of reading for fun, society may find them gravitating just as easily to their assigned readings—even when the authors include Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Yaa Gyasi!

Submit a letter

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *