Literacy: The Building Block for Everything


“More than 20 percent of adults read at or below a fifth-grade level — far below the level needed to earn a living wage.” – National Institute for Literacy

“Nearly half of America’s adults are poor readers, or ‘functionally illiterate.’ They can’t carry out simple tasks like balancing check books, reading drug labels or writing essays for a job.” – National Adult Literacy Survey, 1993

“To participate fully in society and the workplace in 2020, citizens will need powerful literacy abilities that until now have been achieved by only a small percentage of the population.” – National Council on Teachers of English Standards for the English Language Arts

The above statistics and information are scary. Too many people in this country are not literate, or at least they read, write, and comprehend well below their potential. I know too many people who think, “Eh, I don’t like to read so why bother?” or, “I passed English in high school. I don’t need to read.”

And, worst of all, “My kid doesn’t like to read so I’m not about to force them to do something they hate.”

It’s this last one that’s especially concerning. Learning to read (and deeply, for comprehension not just pleasure) is one of the greatest things you can do to set your kids up for success in later life. It might be the greatest thing you can do for them, period, come to think of it. Why? Because literacy is the building block upon which most other skills are built.

Think about all of the transactions and things you do in life that require literacy:

  • Reading and understanding things like contracts and rental agreements.
  • Understanding mortgages, student loans, and other financial tools.
  • Understanding insurance, healthcare, and legal agreements like wills and trusts.
  • Reading basic instructions like operating manuals or prescription instructions.
  • Passing basic tests like driver’s training or credentials/certifications for your job.
  • Reading and understanding books, articles and other information that helps you in your career.
  • Writing well enough to convey your point of view, or communicate essential instructions to employees and team members.
  • Understanding the instructions given to you by your boss or team members.

And many more. Without these skills, you’re more likely to find yourself in situations where you miss opportunities, are taken advantage of, or simply left behind by colleagues and peers who pick up on things quicker than you can because you’re struggling with the instructions. Without basic literacy skills, a person is almost guaranteed to end up in poverty simply because they cannot understand basic financial concepts, they cannot qualify for good jobs, and they cannot take care of the most basic tasks.

Basic literacy is, ideally, learned when we are children during our school years. If you have kids, you may assume that they are learning all they need to know in school. But don’t bet on it. Too many kids slip through the school systems with only minimal literacy skills, and some don’t even have that. Take the time to make certain that your kids grow up to be literate. (And, no, being fluent in text-speak and emojis does not count. Our addiction to screens, text-speak, and short articles may actually be making things worse.) In addition to reading and writing skills that are taught in school, here are some things you can do to help make your child a better reader and writer:

  1. Read with/to your kids. Sit down every day and read to your kids, even before you think they can understand the stories. Language development is happening in children who are too young to understand the meaning of a story or read for themselves. When they are able to read some for themselves, let them help and read what they can.
  2. Read in front of your children. Set the example by reading in front of your kids. Kids do what they see their parents doing, so you want to teach them that reading is a good pastime. Read the paper, novels, and non-fiction in front of your kids.
  3. Don’t disparage their reading choices. One day I was in the library and this little kid came running up to his mother, all excited to check out a stack of books he’d picked. The mom looked at the books and immediately discarded them all. “You’ve read that one five times, already,” she said of one choice. “You’ve seen the movies to these three,” she said of others. Others were deemed too childish or stupid. I thought to myself, “Lady, when your kids grows up and can’t read, remember this moment.” As long as the material isn’t objectionable, let kids read what they want. So what if he reads the same book six times? I’m an adult and I’ve read some of my favorites far more than that. So what if he’s seen the movie? Books are usually better than the movie adaptations and contain many more layers to the story. And if it seems childish or stupid? Maybe they just seem that way to you because you aren’t six years old. Your choices probably seem boring and stupid to a kid. If they show an interest in reading encourage it, don’t stomp on it.
  4. Make reading special, at least in the beginning. When I was learning to read, story time was special in my house and it was sacrosanct. No matter what else was going on, we kept that half hour for story time. Even the babysitters knew to keep that ritual. I was given a small treat like half a cookie or a sip of Coke and a story was read. It was a special time and I savored those treats and the time with my parents. That created a positive association with reading in my mind. To this day, when I sit down with a good book I do so with a glass of nice wine or a small snack and keep it special.
  5. Make reading materials accessible. Kids are more likely to read if there is easy access to materials. Make frequent trips to the library to restock. I know some parents who are not willing to buy video games or other toys except at Christmas and birthdays, but have an agreement with their kids that they will buy all the books they want whenever the urge strikes. Buy their favorites and keep them easily accessible. Subscribe to one or two magazines that your kids love like Sports Illustrated for Kids, or Highlights. If you decide to go the e-reader route, get one that is a dedicated reader, not a tablet. Why? Because an e-reader removes many of the distractions posed by a tablet.
  6. Talk about what you’ve read. During your reading time, talk about what you’re reading to improve comprehension. Ask your kids what they think happens next, or why a character acted as they did. Ask them what they’ve learned from the story or if they think there’s something else that should have been included. Engage them beyond the story. Keep a dictionary nearby and look up the meanings of unfamiliar words.
  7. Participate in book clubs, story hours, and summer reading programs. Take advantage of the camaraderie of book clubs and story hours. It lets kids meet other kids and, since most story hours and book clubs have activities and other fun things going on, it teaches them that reading doesn’t have to be boring. Summer reading programs usually provide an incentive for reading the most books and you may find that the competition aspect inspires your kid to read more.
  8. Let them read about their interests (not yours) and let them experiment. Let them pick out books about things they are interested in. Maybe it’s football, nature, science, space, history, art, or dolls. Whatever it is, even if it seems foreign to you, let them pursue it. Encourage them to read about their interests and don’t try to force your interests on them. Nothing kills a desire to read faster than a parent who pushes books on sports (dad’s passion) on a kid who’s interested only in science. And let your kids experiment. If he comes home one day and wants to read about coin collecting when he’s never shown an interest before, so what? Let him pursue it.
  9. Encourage your kids to write. In addition to reading, you also want to encourage your kids to write. Let them write stories and pay them a little bit per page (even if it’s horrible). Praise their efforts. Let them write a play and put it on for the family. Encourage them to write whatever they want. Sometimes schoolwork makes writing a chore because it’s endless reports and papers, so encourage their fanciful efforts.
  10. Get a tutor or take advantage of literacy programs. If you feel like your child is struggling, don’t be afraid to ask for help. There are many free/low cost literacy programs out there sponsored by libraries or groups like the United Way. If you have the means, a private tutor or a learning center can be a big help.
  11. Make reading a reward for other things. Instead of treating your kids with snacks or cheap toys when they behave well, reward them with books. When I was a kid, if my parents needed to “bribe” me to behave or to reward me for good grades or some other positive behavior, they did so with books. Mom kept a closet of story books and “Little Golden Books.” When I did well, I was allowed to choose a book. I thought it was great and it reinforced the idea that reading is a reward. In later years, the “rewards” came in the form of trips to the bookstore so I could choose my own books. I still use bookstore trips and Amazon stock ups as a “reward” for finishing arduous tasks or dealing with life’s harder moments.
  12. Keep reading and writing throughout adulthood, and challenge yourself with harder materials. Like any skill, literacy will decline if not used regularly. As an adult, I keep reading and writing to keep my skills sharp. I challenge myself by reading widely and occasionally choosing harder materials like Shakespeare or scientific tomes. I write about many different topics, and I write in a journal just for me where I can experiment with poetry or other forms of writing. All of this keeps me mentally fit and my literacy skills sharp.

My parents made reading and writing a priority in my house and they used many of the ideas above. By the fourth grade I was reading at an eighth grade level and my skills only went up from there. I’m grateful for so many gifts that my parents gave me, but my literacy skills are one of my most treasured. Being able to read and write well has opened many doors for me and brought me hours of pleasure. Had my parents depended only on the school system, I might not have ended up with the skills that I now enjoy.

Basic literacy is a building block for all of life’s skills. Without literacy skills, a person cannot hope to compete in the workforce, make good financial decisions, or deal with legal matters. This is why it’s important to make certain your kids grow up with well-developed literacy skills and that you keep your own skills sharp throughout your life. Without those skills you are doomed before you even leave the starting gate.


(Photo courtesy of geralt)

2 thoughts on “Literacy: The Building Block for Everything

  1. Mirka Breen

    Reading is the fundamental building block for successful independent living in the modern world. But I think we forget that being able to read is rather new in our evolution. Re-wind tape just four hundred years, and it was something most people could not do.

  2. Jayne Bodell

    I couldn’t agree with you more. I taught 11th grade remedial English in summer school and was amazed how these students made it to the 11th grade not knowing how to write a basic paragraph. It took all I had to get them to read the newspaper.


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