Improving Literacy in the United States: Recommendations for Increasing Reading Success

A young girl engages in her reading lesson at a school in Washington, D.C., January 2016.

Adult illiteracy directly affects an individual’s employment options, likelihood to live in poverty, likelihood to be incarcerated, access to adequate health care and health outcomes, and life expectancy. Generational illiteracy makes it increasingly difficult to escape these circumstances, and millions of Americans face this reality every day.

From 2011 to 2014, the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies conducted a study of adult literacy in the United States, finding that approximately 43 million Americans possess low literacy skills and 8.4 million American adults are classified as functionally illiterate—defined as having literacy skills at a third-grade level, or “no more than the most simple and concrete literacy skills.” In the past decade, average reading proficiency scores across the country have decreased, leaving millions of students without the necessary skills to become active and informed members of society. Particularly vulnerable are Black, Latinx, and low-income students, who score well below the national average. The wide-ranging consequences of functional illiteracy include large-scale political disengagement; aggregated economic loss in the form of suppressed GDP; greater dependency on social welfare programs; and higher incarceration costs. In total, these consequences represent an estimated 2 percent of annual GDP in developed nations—equivalent to an opportunity cost of $428 billion in 2019. Solving illiteracy will require greater federal investment and leadership, including by providing specific avenues for local literacy programs to access and utilize federal funds and supporting states that adopt explicit literacy training standards for teacher certification.

Rate of reading failure and contributing factors

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) assessment charts the reading proficiency of fourth, eighth, and 12th graders in school districts across the United States, utilizing a 0–500 reading scale to establish the achievement levels Basic, Proficient, and Advanced. In the past 27 years, reading gains have only marginally increased (from 217 to 220 for all fourth-grade students; from 260 to 263 for all eighth-grade students; and from 292 to 287 for all 12th-grade students).

In order to address the widespread problem of low literacy, educators and policymakers must first understand why so many students struggle to read. One reason is undiagnosed reading disabilities such as dyslexia or other brain-based learning difficulties, which are more effectively addressed when identified in children as early as kindergarten and ideally before the second grade. Environmental factors such as low exposure to literature or language barriers can also limit reading success. Many experts also argue that a major contributing factor is the lack of training teachers receive in identifying children who are at risk of reading failure and in building oral language and linguistic skills. Additionally, teachers may not receive explicit instruction on how to teach reading skills, and existing reading curricula often do not align with the current science on how students learn. Studies suggest that incorporating the science of reading practices studied by psychologists, linguists, and neurobiologists into the classroom will dramatically reduce the number of children who are on track to become functionally illiterate adults.

The role of reading intervention programs

Interventions for struggling readers have a long history in U.S. education and varying degrees of success. One of the most widely used reading programs in the United States, Reading Recovery, was developed in the 1970s and targets first graders for specific reading instruction. A four-year study revealed that students in the program realized significant gains in reading ability equivalent to 6–7 months of learning in a 5-month period. This was made possible by teacher training sites and partnerships with local universities which train and develop teachers in reading instruction. Though proven to be effective, this approach is not always feasible for district leaders due to the high cost of implementation—including materials and supplies, graduate studies at universities, training site setup, and teacher leader and reading instructional specialist salary pay—which varies greatly by district and by state.

Since 2001, the federal government has given greater priority to increasing literacy skills. The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act mandated all children read at or above grade level as measured by standardized testing beginning in the third grade. Under recommendation from the National Reading Panel, the NCLB Act established two literacy initiatives to provide for the attainment of this national standard—the Early Reading First and Reading First programs—targeting pre-K to third-grade students. Since its inception, thousands of schools across the nation have benefited from available funds, which have improved professional development and coaching for teachers on working with struggling readers, diagnosing and preventing early reading difficulties, and monitoring student progress. While these are important gains, studies show that Reading First has not significantly improved reading comprehension among students. However, these initiatives marked an unprecedented federal investment to promote language and literacy development through research-based instructional methods, professional development, and program quality assessments on early reading. These efforts also paid particular attention to early literacy, which is linked to later academic achievement, reduced grade retention, and higher graduation rates. A poor reader at the end of the first grade has a 90 percent chance of still being a poor reader at the end of the fourth grade, and as many as 74 percent of these students may still struggle by the ninth grade, making it critical to identify and support struggling students as early as possible.

Since 2005, Reading First and similar federal literacy initiatives have been subject to significant funding cuts. In 2005, $1.04 billion was appropriated for Reading First while today only $190 million is set aside for literacy initiatives in the form of Comprehensive Literacy State Development (CLSD) grants. Competitively awarded to states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, CLSD grants support literacy from birth to 12th grade and are disbursed among school districts and nonprofits with “a demonstrated record of effectiveness” in improving language and early literacy development and in providing professional development in language and early literacy development.

Policy interventions

Given the relationship between literacy and outcomes related to health, employment, and poverty, the federal government should view funding toward literacy programs as a long-term investment and priority, especially for underserved and marginalized groups. The NAEP reports that Black, Hispanic, and socioeconomically disadvantaged students—defined as those who qualify for free and reduced price lunch—score lower in reading at all levels in every reporting year. In addition, English language learners (ELLs) are found to score significantly lower than their non-ELL peers. Patterns of reading difficulty due to generational illiteracy, low exposure to literature at home, and language barriers disproportionately affect students of color;  differentiated curricula that are culturally relevant to students of color or that are bilingual for ELLs may help combat this issue.

Figure 1

Provide clear guidelines on federal funding for local literacy programs

The U.S. Department of Education should include grant application guidelines on how to utilize CLSD funds to specifically support effective local literacy programs. Providing clear avenues for the use of federal funding for effective programs may benefit students and families by removing barriers such as cost and transportation. Additionally, federal guidance should define how to recognize effective local programs for districts where low NAEP scores have persisted. For example, in some communities, reading clinics—independent entities that provide one-on-one services to struggling readers—may be the best method for increasing literacy and may be supported by CLSD funds. When allocating these funds, the Education Department should give competitive preference to clinics and other educational programs that provide teachers with opportunities to work with certified reading specialists to identify struggling readers, learn best practices that can be applied to an entire classroom, and provide resources to support students in clinic, in class, and at home. Competitive preference should also be given to programs that have an explicit multigenerational mission such as those that offer free or significantly reduced-price courses in English, literacy, high school education, or child development for low-income and immigrant adults. To accomplish these goals, the Education Department should also commission a national study on the effectiveness of local reading programs in establishing research-based standards for implementation at scale.

Establish new requirements for pre-K and elementary certification

The federal government should encourage incorporating reading instruction standards across disciplines for teacher preparation programs and early child and elementary licensure. In applying for CLSD funds, for example, a competitive preference could be given to states that require teachers to complete coursework in the science of reading—broadly defined as the methods or approaches that have been found to give students a learning advantage, which include oral reading fluency and text comprehension. Currently, 32 states require elementary teacher preparation programs to include science of reading instruction for initial licensure. Of these states, only 21 are considered to require sufficiently rigorous demonstration of knowledge by assessing all five components of scientifically based reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Federal funds could also be used to support professional development on best reading instruction practices through research-based methods, including one-on-one approaches or full-class methods.

The future of literacy

Educators at the K-12 level have tested various ways to disrupt the pattern of illiteracy and support struggling readers, but the advancement of literacy as a national priority has thus far been inconsistent. Fundamentally improving literacy will require applying an explicit equity lens to understand gaps in developing education policies and standards; increasing investment in public schools and targeting funding to those with the greatest need; and modernizing the teaching profession to meet the needs of students. Without large-scale investments, equitable resources to low-income schools with high concentrations of students living in poverty, and teachers explicitly trained in science of reading practices in every classroom, efforts to progress literacy and reading success will be blunted.

With minimal gains in literacy in the United States over the past several decades, educators and policymakers must continue the conversation on how to increase reading success and comprehension. This is particularly important as the country finds itself in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to school closures and new challenges for educators with the transition to extended remote learning, likely exacerbating the gaps in reading proficiency many K-12 students already experience.

Alpha Diallo is a former intern with the K-12 Education Policy team at the Center for American Progress.