Why bother learning to read in the 21st century?

A concerned parent recently asked me if becoming a skilled reader was still important. Her child – an elementary school boy – was really struggling with reading. He seemed to spend a lot of time and energy trying to figure out the words on the page or screen. In fact, the whole process was so difficult that by the time he had gotten through all the words, he couldn’t remember much about what he read.

She wondered if taking advantage of some of the available technology might be a better use of everyone’s time than struggling to help this child become a better reader. This mother was not alone. Others ask me these questions too. Some have a child that can read simple words but doesn’t like to read. Others complain that it is hard to make the child stay still and focus on a page. It’s more fun to play video games, practice throwing hoops or kicking a soccer ball, or text friends.

I can relate! We all have a lot on our plates. And because we are concerned about preparing our children to be successful in today’s world, we:

  • Read to them;
  • Enroll them in sports and other activities; and
  • Help them with schoolwork.

Maybe we should leave reading to the schools and electronic devices and find other – less frustrating – things to do with our children…

I went home and spent some time thinking. It was a fair question. In today’s world, do we really need to worry about whether our children are learning to become good readers? Is it truly a skill that will make a difference ten, twenty, or fifty years from now? Or will it become a “nice to have” but not really necessary? Will technology find a way to make reading somewhat outdated?

I looked at the other options out there. We have audio books. Many materials have a text-to-speech feature so you can listen to the content. We can watch movies, videos, and documentaries for both pleasure and education. Many signs and instructions rely on images to tell us what to do.

And we hear that the really good jobs involve science, technology, engineering, and/or math. How much reading do you need to work in those fields?

I decided two things: (1) it isn’t easy to help a child learn to read, and (2) it is well worth the time and effort. Every day I interact with people. Those who are good readers seem to have an easier time than those who struggle. Not that anyone’s life is perfect. But being able to read well makes a big difference not only in school but in life. In my opinion, that makes it a critical life skill. This is why:

  • Our children are taught to read in grades kindergarten through third. After third grade, a child must be able to read well enough to understand and apply the information from reading the books, articles, etc. on their own.
  • A child who does not read well faces obstacles in many subjects. Because reading is the prerequisite skill, they don’t finish their work as quickly as their classmates. They don’t do as well on tests. It’s harder to do some things independently.
  • Poor readers realize they have a problem. They are not stupid, but they often feel that way. This feeling causes personal distress. Confidence and self-esteem drop. They may begin to experience frustration, anger, or even depression. We frequently see behavior problems inside and outside of the classroom. In other words, their grades and ability to learn aren’t the only areas to suffer.
  • Children who struggle to read have a difficult and more distressing social experience. They may be placed in groups with others who are not considered “the smart ones.” They may even be bullied or laughed at. Their general quality of life takes a hit.

The sad part is that very often children who struggle to read are bright and creative. They are far from stupid. If reading this blog makes you think of your child, take heart. Most children can become good readers using an approach that emphasizes sounds, letters, and lots of hands-on fun activities. Once children understand that reading well helps them do things they like, they usually become motivated. Even children who are not excited about reading stories and chapter books may get motivated to read some of the online instructions for advancing in video game levels. Or reading graphic comic books. Or cooking a recipe. Or learning about a famous athlete. The list goes on. And once your child has the firm foundation needed to become a skilled reader, that critical life skill will open doors for him/her for years to come.

Reference List

Kilpatrick, D. A. (2015). Essentials of assessing, preventing, and overcoming reading difficulties. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.