Why high schoolers’ low reading levels matter

In our last post, we pointed out that high school reading levels are low, and have been essentially unchanged for the past 40 years (despite gains in younger students’ reading levels).

But the next question is: why does it matter? So what if reading levels are low?

It matters a lot, both for students and for society as a whole, for five reasons:

1. Reading helps students succeed across the high school curriculum and beyond

Low literacy levels often prevent poor students from mastering other subjects, because they struggle in text heavy courses or are blocked from taking more challenging courses

Almost seven thousand students drop out of high school every school day; one of the most commonly cited reasons for this is that students do not have the literacy skills to keep up with their high school curriculum.

2. Employers demand strong reading skills, and are noticing a reading problem

Our service economy increasingly relies upon, demands and rewards workers with strong reading and critical thinking skills – the Carnegie Foundation reports that the 25 fastest-growing professions have greater than average literacy demands, while the 25 fastest declining professions have lower than average literacy demands

Yet employers report that nearly 40% of high school graduates lack the reading comprehension skills necessary for their jobs

3. Strong reading skills significantly improve job opportunities

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 61% of employed proficient readers have jobs in management, business, financial, or related sectors, or would otherwise be considered “professional,” while only 7% of Below Basic readers are employed in those fields

Only 13% of people with Below Basic reading skills, and 23% of people with Basic reading skills make $850 or more a week. 58% of people with Proficient skills earn above $850 a week

Percentage of Full-Time Workers by Weekly Earnings and Reading Level in 2003

Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics


4. Readers are more likely to serve their communities and their country

Those who read frequently are more likely than non-readers to volunteer, to stay informed about current events, and to vote in elections


Source: National Endowment for the Arts


5. Readers do more.

Frequent readers are also significantly more likely to exercise, do outdoor activities, play sports, visit art museums, create art, visit art museums, and attend plays or music concerts.


Source: National Endowment for the Arts

For those who are interested in this topic in detail, check out The NEA’s To Read or Not to Read, and the Carnegie Foundation’s Reading Next, from which most of this data comes.

And if you’d like to do something to improve student reading levels that students would enjoy, check out Zinc's reading and vocabulary tools.