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Literacy: Improve it or pay the price

The 2013 Nation’s Report Card from the National Assessment of Education Progress showed only 35 percent of U.S. fourth-graders read proficiently, according to scores posted last week. Thirty-two percent scored below basic reading levels, meaning they are functionally illiterate.

That’s bad news for those millions of children. And, it's bad news for U.S. society.

Multiple studies show students who don’t read well in third grade are more likely to drop out of school, and high school dropouts cost society more than literacy programs for dropout prevention do, according to The New York Times.

Studies show that the typical high school graduate will reach higher employment and earnings levels — an astonishing 50 percent to 100 percent increase in lifetime income — and will be less likely to draw on public money for health care and welfare and less likely to be involved in the criminal justice system, said The New York Times. Because of the increased income, the typical graduate will contribute more in tax revenues over his lifetime than if he’d dropped out, the article continued.

Efforts to increase high school completion, like high-quality preschool, provide returns to taxpayers that are as much as three and one-half times their cost, according to the article.

Besides public efforts to increase literacy, many private groups are working to improve reading outcomes. In 2013, the U.S. Library of Congress awarded its first Literacy Awards to support innovative groups working to increase literacy in the United States and abroad. A look at the winners gives an overview of methods that are working to increase literacy.

Reach Out and Read, a group based in Boston, Mass., encourages literacy in early childhood by working to integrate literacy awareness into regular office visits with pediatricians. Through the program, thousands of doctors and nurses across the U.S. promote early literacy and school readiness to young children and their families by distributing books to children and advice to their parents. Medical providers in the program sever 4 million children each year in all 50 states.

More than 30 million U.S. children — 42 percent — live in low-income households. They are more likely than their peers to lack age-appropriate books in their homes and to attend schools lacking books and resources, according to First Book, a nonprofit literacy group.

826 National uses unique storefront offices in eight cities nationwide to offer one-on-one tutoring for at-risk K-12 students. 826 centers also offer a range of free core programs, including storytelling, bookmaking, in-school writing workshops and publishing projects. The group serves more than 31,000 students and publishes more than 1,000 student books annually.

Students warm up to the off-beat vibe of the centers, a Washington Post story said. In D.C.’s Columbia Heights center, that includes a resident green iguana named Alvarez and a Museum of Unnatural History. Students who attend after-school classes learn to produce their own books with one-on-one help from volunteers.

PlanetRead, in Mumbai, India, reinforces literacy by adding subtitles to popular musical television programming. The research-based program is easy to carry out and replicate. It reaches 200 million low-literacy television viewers in India. It’s known for getting low-literacy adults to read, particularly where access to books is difficult.

Email: Twitter: @celiarbaker