Editorial: Supporting those on the frontlines attacking illiteracy

By Steve Potash, Publisher   |  June 2018

If you’re able to read this, congratulations. Thirty-two million adults in the United States can’t.

The ability to read has value beyond just picking up your local newspaper or discussing the latest New York Times bestseller with your book club. For half of our population, their literacy skills are so low they’re unable to read prescription drug labels, and 20 percent of Americans read below the level needed to earn a living wage.

Studies also find that children whose parents have low literacy levels have a 72 percent chance of being at low literacy levels themselves, and research shows that 2/3 of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of fourth grade will end up in jail or on welfare. The correlation is so strong that some states even use elementary school reading tests to determine the number of prison beds to budget for in the future.

Our communities are in crisis because of insufficient literacy skills. Children growing up in homes without books are at risk, and the only way we can change course toward a more positive future is by fostering a love of reading early and often. Learning about programs that aim to accomplish this is what this new online magazine, Perspectives on Reading, is all about. We’re always interested in your viewpoint.

13.7 million.

That’s the number of words students who read at least 30 minutes per day are projected to encounter between kindergarten and 12th grade. By the time they graduate, their peers who read less than 15 minutes per day will have only encountered 1.5 million words throughout the course of their schooling. Just 15 minutes more per day determines exponential levels of vocabulary growth. For at-risk students, an extra 15 minutes a day can make the difference between getting their diploma or dropping out.

This urgency to create and cultivate a love of reading in children needs to start before kindergarten. In a study of 3-5 year olds, it was found that those children that had been read to at least three times a week were twice as likely to recognize all of the letters and twice as likely to understand words in context. Children who enjoy reading tend to read more often and reading to them early, even as young as infancy, has benefits.

But not all children grow up in an environment where this is feasible. Forty-four million adults are unable to read a simple story to their child, creating educational and recreational gaps within our cities that affect us all.

These are gaps that libraries can – and do – fill.

Our libraries offer a beacon of hope against the rising tide of low literacy skills. For families struggling to survive below the poverty limit, libraries provide free resources for all ages, including story time and reading programs for children. Many also offer tutoring and literacy classes for adults. For individuals who speak and read a native language other than English, libraries offer language learning classes. Parents working non-traditional hours know that the library is a safe space for their children to spend time after school.

The value that libraries contribute to their communities cannot be understated. Time and time again, across multiple states and countries, study after study shows that for every $1 in library funding, there’s a $4-$5 economic benefit to the community. Supporting our local libraries is the most effective and efficient way to address the literacy crisis head on.

Reading, and having the ability to read, allows our neighbors and friends to make informed decisions regarding their mental and physical health. Literacy provides opportunities for jobs and career advancement. Literacy offers a secure and safe environment for children to grow and thrive. Acquiring literacy skills as an adult can alter the course of an individual’s life, putting them on a path toward personal and professional success. With improved literacy comes improved job opportunities. Gainful employment allows families to flourish, giving children the opportunity to break the poverty cycle created by illiteracy.

Along with libraries, schools and publishers have opportunities to help. Here are some ways organizations can promote literacy efforts:


  • Be sure collection development policy addresses print and/or digital materials aimed at adult learners
  • Educate selectors on publishers that create hi-lo content and allocate a budget for those materials
  • Allow flexible time limits for adult learners who may need additional time on public computers
  • Collaborate with local schools to assist in combating the summer slide
  • Consider adopting a unique sticker or symbol that will help adult learners discreetly identify materials


  • Set aside time during the day for independent reading, the more time the better
  • Allow students to select their own reading materials whenever possible. The more they enjoy the books they read, the more they’ll want to read
  • At the same time, encourage students to also read outside their preferred genres in order to introduce them to new ideas and increase their vocabulary
  • Design and implement methods for identifying and assisting students with literacy difficulties
  • Partner with local libraries to increase available literacy resources for students


  • Create hi-lo content that will engage low literacy teenagers and adults, providing an alternative to children’s books which may make them feel ashamed or embarrassed
  • Partner with schools for author events to encourage a love of reading early on
  • Donate books to non-profit organizations that have outreach efforts in those communities most at risk for low literacy
  • Provide diverse content. Children want to be able to see themselves in the books they read

Organizational efforts are just one piece of the puzzle, though. Because communities blossom when residents learn to read, increasing literacy is a community-wide effort. Here are some ways you can help:

  • Be a reading role model for your family, kids and others
  • Celebrate reading wherever you find it – and promote it where it isn’t found
  • Embrace all forms of reading. This includes audiobooks! For those who struggle to read, audio versions allow them to still enjoy books
  • Pay it forward with books, stories and reading. That includes donating time and money to those who deliver books and volunteering as a reading tutor

Literacy is a learned skill and we all have within us the power to promote change and support it within our communities.

Steve Potash is the founder and CEO of OverDrive.

Related articles