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The Importance of Literacy In Education

Guest Blogger: Meghann Fallon, Director of Curriculum Instruction - Uncommon Schools

Literacy education is one of the most pressing issues facing the United States Department of Education due to startling research that reveals the inadequacies in our public schools.  In 2013, the Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy conducted a study that reveals close to 32 million adults are illiterate, which is about 14% of the general population.  Even more shocking, an estimated 21% of adults in America fall below a 5th grade reading level and perhaps 19% of high school graduates have managed to secure a diploma without learning to read and write. 

What is the Problem?

Most of the current research and brainpower is being poured into early education, pre-school programs and literacy in K-2.  Researches are not incorrect to believe much of the literacy problem exists due to these early foundational years.   Most of the data conducted around literacy points to the gaps already present when students enter into the school system.  According to University of Kansas researchers, Betty Hart and Todd Risely, low-income students are exposed to 30 million fewer words than their peers from higher-income families.  To educators this word gap is indicative of a lot more than exposure to words.  It is a reminder that children in our country our entering schools at vastly different starting points and that once the educational race begins, it can be nearly impossible to catch up.  

What is the Solution?

Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet for the illiteracy rates plaguing our country and sadly much of the efforts currently in place merely scratch the surface of what needs to be done.  However, schools and teachers can improve literacy education by taking a few small steps. 

Literacy as a Cross Disciplinary Movement: One of the biggest mistakes schools make is limiting literacy to the reading and writing classroom.  With the advancement of the Common Core Curriculum and STEM programs throughout the country, it has become even more apparent that literacy happens in all disciplines.  The techniques and skills students are learning and reading and writing should not only be applied in other subject areas but also practiced and mastered. 

What does this look like?

  • At a very early age, students are reading about history and science in order to gain content knowledge. 

  • Complex word problems should happen in math as soon as possible.  Even when students are completing only basic computations.

  • Writing to demonstrate mastery should be the preferred method for assessment over multiple-choice.

  • Reading skills, such as annotations, should be shared and expected across a school and not just in an ELA classroom. 

Emphasis on Non-Fiction: For a significant portion of a child’s early education, students are exposed to predominately fiction texts and understandably so.  Never mind that reading fiction is almost always more enjoyable, it also teaches us about character and helps us build empathy, skills crucial in the development of students in K – 2.  However, an education focused solely on fiction limits students’ ability to apply reading skills in other environments and under prepares them to operate in the real world where non-fiction is drives human interaction. 

Teacher Education: Literacy, like all subject areas, requires an expert teacher.  Unfortunately, many students, in all grades but especially grades K – 5, are receiving a reading and writing education from a teacher who, due to no fault of their own, is underqualified, inadequately trained and unable to focus one hundred percent of their energy and attention to literacy education. 

Most teachers in the elementary setting receive a general masters in education.  This means that when they enter the classroom they are not specialized in any one subject and most of the training falls on the school to provide.  In addition, teachers are required to plan and implement reading, writing, math, history and science lessons within their classrooms with the same quality and attention to detail.  This is impossible.  

A more progressive education would have teachers specialized in literacy education working with students as early as kindergarten.  While this model is unusual, it is successful in middle school and high school for the very reason that planning and executing one lesson allows for precision in a way that planning and executing five cannot. 


The solution to the literacy problem in the United States requires a layered approach that involves government, policy and education leaders.  However, until the Department of Education attempts to make these strides, the responsibility falls on schools to think creatively and push the boundaries of what is happening within their own communities.  Educators can’t wait, their students’ and America’s future, deserves a quality literacy education. 


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