Read Across America Day 2021

A Little Free Library book exchange. (Photo by C. Aklu)

Reading 20 Minutes Per Day Adds up to Reading 1,800,000 Words Per Year!

By Chaitram Aklu

The U. S. Department of Education reported in 2020 that 54% of United States adults 16-64 years old lack proficiency in literacy skills and was reading below the 6th Grade level. This amounts to about 130 million people. At this level they are not equipped to compare and contrast information, paraphrase, and make low-level inferences. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) which analyses literacy skills reports that 50% of U.S. adults cannot read books written at the eighth grade level. And a Gallup Poll done for the Barbara Bush Foundation found that this lack of proficiency is costing the U.S. some $1.2 trillion annually.

Although reading is a basic life skill, it poses one of the greatest problems for educators, the education system and the nation. reports that with reading comprehension comes “a stronger self-discipline, longer attention span, and better memory retention, all of which will serve your child well when she enters school.” According to a 2019 Pew Research Center study, adults in households of $30,000 or less a year are more likely to be non-book readers, compared to households earning $75 000 or more. This translates to 36% non-book readers vs. 14% book readers.

March is designated National Reading Month. March 2, National Reading Across America Day was established in 1998 by the National Education Association (NEA), the largest teachers union in the United States. The date is not coincidental. It is the birthday of Theodor Geisel (born March 2, 1904) who is best known as Dr. Seuss, the famous author of popular children’s books. The theme this year is “celebrating a world of diverse readers and helping local children develop a love of reading.” The idea is a very simple one – to help kids get excited about reading. Dr. Seuss’ most famous books include The Cat in the Hat, which contains only 236 words, Green Eggs and Ham, and One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish – books which are still very popular and widely quoted.

There are advantages to reading printed books. A Bangor University neuroscience research revealed that reading from paper books is better connected to memory in the brain. While the study acknowledges the increasing reliance of electronics in our daily lives, it argues that it is important to keep printed books the main form of reading in the home. “When reading an e-book, the moment that book becomes interactive, the part of the brain engaged in the activity changes and it no longer is an activity that builds literacy skills. There is no give and take here, electronics should be an enhancement and not a replacement,” (emphasis added) the research noted.

The findings of the Bangor research is supported by The National Review of Libraries and Lifelong Learning which notes that “80 percent of people report comprehending text better when reading on paper versus screen.”

There are great benefits to reading. It lays the foundation for children’s success in school as well as later in life. According to the website, reading reduces stress by 68 %; an estimated 40% of students are considered poor readers; reading just 20 minutes per day adds up to reading a whopping 1,800,000 words per year; it is the fastest way to build vocabulary- children learn 4,000 – 12, 000 words every year by reading; and kids in classrooms without libraries read 50% less than kids in classrooms with libraries. An individual rated ‘average’ is said to have a vocabulary of only 50,000 words according to another Bangor University study.

The Center for the Developing Child also notes that during the first three years of life 700 new connections between cells in the brain are formed each second – faster than at any other time in a person’s life. And when reading is done together listening skills, memory skills, vocabulary skills are developed, as well as understanding cause and effect, consequences of actions, right and wrong and higher level reasoning and abstract thinking. Dr. Seuss summarizes it appropriately: “The more you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places, you’ll go.”

Further the American Academy of Pediatrics reports that two-thirds of children can’t read proficiently by the time they complete third grade. Reason: more than one in three American children start kindergarten without the skills they need to learn to read.
Another research study has found that “In one year a child with professional parents will hear 11 million words and a child in a welfare family will hear just 3 million words.” The sad fact is that the early differences do not change when the children enters school but remains with them throughout their education.

On National Read Across America Day everyone in the country should start reading and continue daily to make it a lifelong habit. Those too young to read should be read to. Again, the research shows that reading to a child at an early age, does contribute to the development of oral language, word reading, and reading comprehension. Read and reread children books to them – participation books (sing along and action), Concept books – books that teach new ideas, high interest books, and picture storybooks.

Books may be expensive to purchase for many people and may even be out of reach for the poor. Apart from the local public library one organization, First Book has distributed more that 185 million books since 1992 to programs and 1.3 million to classrooms in schools serving children in low income communities.

Another source for free books is the Little Free Library where millions of books are exchanged each year at small roadside kiosks called book exchanges. Its stated purpose is “to inspire a love for reading, build community, and spark creativity by fostering neighborhood book exchanges around the world.” Started in 2009, “with the aim of increasing access to books for readers of all ages and backgrounds,” in Wisconsin, these neighborhood book exchanges number more than 91,000 and have spread to 91 countries around the globe. Anyone can take a book or books for free. Anyone can also deposit books in them.

And remember The Mathew Effect: “The more words you know, the more you can read. The more you read, the more words you will learn.”