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Sonia Sotomayor: “Reading Is the Key to Success”

What’s your earliest memory of loving to read?

When panelists were asked that question at the 2018 National Reading Coalition by Reading Is Fundamental (RIF) last week, their answers resonated strongly with the book-loving audience: hiding under the covers with a flashlight to finish a book well past bedtime, diving into the pages of a Nancy Drew classic, or heading to the local library in summer months to snag the next adventure on the reading list. 

Yet all too often, children aren’t afforded the opportunity to experience these formative moments. Across the country, 63 percent of children read below grade level, and only 37 percent of students graduate high school reading proficiently. These rates constitute what RIF calls a ‘literary crisis.’

The costs of mass illiteracy are significant, both to individuals and society. Development of strong reading skills at an early age leads to positive outcomes in health, political participation, and educational and career attainment. Students who read early and well are more likely to graduate from high school, attend post-secondary institutions, and succeed in the workplace.

“If a child can read, their opportunities are endless,” said Alicia Levi, president and CEO of RIF, a national partner of America’s Promise Alliance.

International research has shown that “reading performance is strongly and significantly related to economic growth.” 

However, the 2016 Business Roundtable survey recently revealed that American illiteracy has become a major economic and business problem. While nine in 10 CEOs across all sectors said that reading and writing skills are important for current job openings, 42 percent reported difficulty in finding candidates with those necessary skills. 

“There is a mismatch between what employees need and the skills our young people have,” said Dane Linn, vice president of the Business Roundtable.

“These problems are complex, and our solutions must be equally complex,” Linn added.

“Equality in America won’t come until we have equality of education. Not just reading, but enjoyment of it.”

To address this complexity, RIF brought together stakeholders from across different fields––business leaders, philanthropists, advocates, policy-makers, and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor––to share practices and discuss solutions for boosting literacy and developing a skilled, successful workforce. 

Here are three key insights that emerged from the day’s discussion.

Literacy Means Reading Digitally, Too.

Today, panelists said, reading proficiently means reading comfortably and flexibly across a broad range of practices and platforms––whether that’s an e-book, news blast, or social media post. 

And yet, as readers of all levels increasingly opt for digital platforms, research shows that most people aren’t very good at using them. 

“We simply don’t read well digitally,” said Tim Shanahan, distinguished professor emeritus of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, citing research that reading comprehension is generally lower on digital platforms than in print for all levels of reader. 

“I keep hearing that we should be reading books and not all of this digital stuff. But what we really need to do is figure out how to read digital materials more effectively, because they aren't going away,” Shanahan added. 

For all its potential pitfalls, advocates see digital technology as a huge asset in increasing access to high quality materials. Although households with print books have been shown to lead to better academic outcomes, the costs are often prohibitive. 

That's why RIF has put out Literacy Central, a free digital library with thousands of resources for parents, teachers, and community partners. This hub offers books, games, activities, lesson plans, and other forms of interactive media to facilitate learning for all reading levels.

Listen to Local Communities, Especially Young People.

Tanya Tucker, Chief of Strategic Initiatives and Partnerships at America’s Promise Alliance, stressed that each community has its own nuances that can lead to significant differences in what makes an intervention effective. 

“People don’t live at a national level,” she said. “They live in communities and in towns. We need to meet them where they are.” 

Participants agreed that positive change happens by enlisting local communities to become part of the solution: getting parents involved, creating partnerships, and encouraging collaboration across sectors.

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And the most important stakeholders in the conversation? Students. Advocates consistently stressed that young people know what they need to learn and thrive better than anyone else. 

Any program aimed at improving outcomes should center young people in the process of building solutions, Tucker said.  

“Don't forget the voice of the student. Don't take the word of someone speaking on behalf of students,” said Denine Torr, senior director of community initiatives at Dollar General Corporation. “Talk to them directly. You may get new insights on how to design efforts." 

Yes, Reading Is Fundamental. It Should Also Be Fun.

When Hurricane Harvey hit Sheldon Independent School District in Texas, it completely flooded the elementary school library, destroying many of the books in the process. 

For Rebecca Zalesnik, director of innovative programs for the school district, this presented an opportunity. The district partnered with RIF, State Farm, and NBA Cares to completely redesign the school library into a space in which kids would want to spend time. 

The new library has a makerspace, a coding area, new furniture, and a completely new selection of books in all different genres to replace the lost textbooks. 

“Kids who didn’t read before now love to read, because there’s something for everybody. We got books that they really want to read,” Zalesnik said. “Kids can read the kindle over here or the print books over there. Either way, we’re all sitting on the bean bags together.” 

In a lunchtime conversation, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor also discussed the importance of enjoying what you read and shared how love of reading has impacted her own life. The inspirational role that books played for her led Sotomayor to write her own children’s book about the power of words and reading called Turning Pages

“I tell kids that reading is the key to my success and that I’m sharing it with them,” said Sotomayor. 

“Promoting an enjoyment of reading is the highest service a citizen can take,” she said. “Equality in America won’t come until we have equality of education. Not just reading, but enjoyment of it.”