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The Need to Read Has Never Been Greater

As difficult as life has been for illiterate Americans in the past, the economy of the near future will offer even fewer jobs for workers with poor reading skills. The Information Age and the advance of technology into daily life make the job prospects for poor readers bleaker than ever.

We must improve reading achievement now, or risk denying a substantial portion of students the opportunity to contribute to and participate fully in our society.

More Americans at all levels of society – federal, state, community, school, and family – are mobilizing to improve reading.

An unprecedented pro-literacy movement, focused on children under age 9, is driving activities in thousands of communities today and could do so in thousands more tomorrow.

Governors and legislatures in the majority of states are taking decisive action regarding illiteracy, and many mayors of cities with stubborn illiteracy rates are tackling the challenge head-on.

Newspapers, businesses, libraries, sports teams, community service groups, employees, college students, and volunteers of all ages are stepping forward to tutor children, work with parents, provide books, and support schools.

This crusade is reshaping our view of the reading challenge. No longer can we simply point fingers at schools for failing to teach students to read. Every parent, teacher, and citizen has a role to play to spark dramatic improvement in reading.

By expanding our view of who contributes to students' reading success, we are increasing the opportunities for millions of Americans to endow our children with this lifelong skill. If we succeed in engaging this untapped pool of adults, the results will revolutionize education in this country.

A blueprint for action is now available

The U.S. Department of Education commissioned the National Research Council to write a scholarly and independent review of all reading research on children.

The council's 1998 landmark report, Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children, clearly lays out what we can and must do to help every child become a reader. This widely respected report calls for an end to the "reading war" over instructional methods and for the adoption of a variety of common sense and research-based techniques.

Teaching with a flexible mix of research-based instructional methods, geared toward individual students, is more effective than strict adherence to any one approach.

Teachers need to understand the most up-to-date reading research and be able to implement it in their classrooms.

Teachers also must be able to identify reading difficulties in students early on and marshal appropriate interventions in response. Young learners need continuing encouragement and individualized instruction to succeed.


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Low literacy is strongly related to unemployment, poverty, and crime. About 43 percent of those with the lowest literacy skills live in poverty, and 70 percent of the prison population falls into the two lowest levels of reading proficiency. 1998 National Institute for Literacy Fact Sheet.

Eight of the 10 fastest-growing jobs in the next decade will require either a college education or moderate to long-term postsecondary training. U.S. Department of Labor: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Silvestri, G.T. (1997). Occupational Employment Projections to 2006. Monthly Labor Review, November 1997, Table 3, p. 77.

In 1998, nearly four in 10 fourth-graders nationwide failed to achieve even partial mastery of the reading skills needed for school success. In our highest-poverty schools, nearly seven in 10 fourth-graders fail to read at this Basic level. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (1999). The 1998 NAEP Reading Report Card for the Nation. NCES 1999-459, by Donahue, P.L., Voelkl, K.E., Campbell, J.R., and Mazzeo, J. Washington, D.C.: Author.

The Reading Excellence Act authorizes $260 million in 1999 for professional development of teachers, out-of-school tutoring, family literacy and transitional programs for kindergarteners. The U.S. Department of Education issues competitive grants to the states, which then hold grant competitions that favor school districts with children most in need. http://www.ed.gov/offices/OESE/REA/index.html

Forty-two states reported significant new literacy activity at the National Reading Summit in September 1998, and more than 20 states enacted reading improvement legislation between 1996 and 1999. Many governors have pledged further action. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Intergovernmental and Interagency Affairs. http://www.ed.gov/inits/readingsummit/

More than 2.2 million children have been tutored in reading through the Corporation for National Service. More than 22,000 college students served as reading tutors under the Federal Work-Study program in 1997-98, and thousands more serve as volunteers. The President's Coalition for America Reads and many other organizations are active across the nation. U.S. Department of Education, America Reads. http://www.ed.gov/inits/americareads

National Research Council. (1998). Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (1999). The 1998 NAEP Reading Report Card for the Nation. NCES 1999-459, by Donahue, P.L., Voelkl, K.E., Campbell, J.R., and Mazzeo, J., Washington, D.C.: Author.

Adapted from: Executive Summary. (July, 1999). Start Early, Finish Strong: How to Help Every Child Become a Reader. America Reads Challenge, U.S. Department of Education.

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