Updated: Jul 28, 2021
Literacy is one of the pillars of educational success for children of all ages as it brings to the forefront the importance of reading and writing skills for understanding a variety of subjects. Reading offers children the ability to learn from others, explore uncharted territories of knowledge, and gain insights into understanding the world around them. Writing skills provides children the ability to engage with the knowledge themselves, and improving these skills gives children a foundation to engage the world around them in more meaningful ways. Improved literacy is one of the key predictors of academic proficiency and life-long success as reading allows the child to grow in their abilities to learn new information and understand complex ideas, (Kern). A longitudinal study published in the Oxford Review of Education journal conducted by Jerrim and colleagues found that children who read books daily improved their grades substantially- on the magnitude of .22 standard deviations- compared to their peers who did not read daily. The positive implications of being a daily reader of books correlated with an increase in academic performance in other subjects as well by nearly .20 standard deviations, (Jerrim et al.). An interesting aspect of this improvement via reading is that the reading that can have the greatest impact on academic achievement is not done with textbooks. In a cohort study that has followed a generation for the last 50 years now, reading for pleasure was found to be one of the most important variables influencing cognitive development. Not only that, but reading for pleasure during childhood showed to have a significant impact on vocabulary 30 years later, (Sullivan et al.).
Unfortunately, students that cannot read and write effectively will struggle to grasp important concepts in their educational experience. This, in turn, will lead to poor performance on tests and ultimately will prevent them from achieving their academic potential. Along with poor classroom performance, when children struggle with literacy, it can have a negative impact on them socially with feelings of frustration, lack of engagement, and lowered self-esteem, (McArthur et al.). But as with most things, a child’s literacy can improve with practice along with having additional support to achieve their academic potential. Improving reading skills will have an outsized impact on a child’s educational success and will set them up for success in nearly every aspect of life in the future. The key aspects of literacy that are focal points of academic proficiency are word and letter recognition, vocabulary, language-skills, comprehension, and narrative-skills.
Word and Letter Recognition
Word and letter recognition is the lowest level of literacy, but it allows the child to build a strong foundation for learning to read and write effectively. A child’s knowledge of letter names and identifying letter shapes is a strong indicator for future success in learning to read. This ability is strongly tied to their ability to recognize words as sequences of letters and can facilitate early attempts at learning to read and put meaningful sentences together. Early literacy involves being able to connect letter names and shapes with specific sounds that will ultimately form words that will have meaning. This leads to the foundation of a child’s vocabulary and ability to build upon that foundation.
Garnering an expansive vocabulary allows children to build on their word and letter recognition and to engage challenging material in ways that will not be overwhelming but will be exciting and motivating to learn more. According to a study published in the American Journal of Psychology, vocabulary improvement is directly linked to their ability to achieve in school and reach academic proficiency in a number of subjects, (Simmons et al.). An extensive vocabulary allows the child to not only understand more of the world around them and improve their ability to learn new information, but it also allows the child to engage in their own creative ways of forming a better, more comprehensive understanding of the world around them and the material they are learning inside and outside of the classroom. With that, improving vocabulary skills will dually impact the child’s ability to comprehend more of what they read and learn from others as well as understand and articulate more of what they think themselves.
Language-skills are related to vocabulary, but the nuance of language-skills arrives with understanding sentence structure and how to formulate a meaningful sentence that clearly communicates one’s thoughts. Language-skills are sometimes termed fluency, which has been shown to be necessary for high levels of reading achievement—as a child becomes more fluent or improves these language-skills, they are able to devote more of their attention and energy to understanding and comprehending what is being read, (Pikulski et al.). Language-skills are developed with exposure to the varied ways a sentence or group of sentences may be constructed and can be improved with practice and quality feedback. There may be ten ways a thought can be formulated into a coherent sentence but figuring out the best way to communicate thoughts and ideas is a skill that can be learned with time and practice. Sentence structure can be a challenge for children early on, but once the “rules” of sentence structure are understood as second nature, children will improve their ability to read and write dramatically.
Comprehension is where the rubber meets the road in regards to literacy. With a strong vocabulary and improved language-skills, understanding is the key component that brings these two parts of literacy together in a truly meaningful way. Reading comprehension takes the words on the page in their individual units and brings them together to form coherent ideas that can be understood. Reading comprehension has been found to be one of the biggest factors to success in science and mathematics according to a study comparing reading comprehension and academic success in a various subjects, (Akbasli et al.). Comprehension is the quintessential purpose of reading—without it, reading and writing has no real utility. Beyond the literal meaning of a text, comprehension also invites the child to reason beyond the text and learn to read in such a way that they can engage the material in meaningful ways to introduce new thoughts or concepts to the discussion at hand. This ties the ability to comprehend while reading to the ability to write in a comprehensive manner, allowing the child to communicate more effectively and engage with new ideas and concepts they may be learning.
If comprehension is understanding the meaning of sentences or groups of sentences and the ideas that undergird them, then narrative-skills are the ability to understand and learn new material in a way that allows the child to meaningfully engage the material in its totality. Narrative-skills allow the child to engage the material in a way that brings a depth of understanding, solidifying the information in a way that can be remembered beyond a day or two. Narrative-skills improve literacy by improving the ability to describe scenarios with more colorful language, to tell events in an order that is coherent, and to re-tell stories or information that is learned in a logical sequence. Narrative-skills can begin to help children anticipate what they are reading by predicting or guessing what might happen next as well as reason out why different events took place in the past to better understand the present. Being able to describe things in a narrative manner will help a child be able to comprehend new information in the future that may be difficult to comprehend otherwise. Ironically, narrative-skills can be developed before vocabulary and word and letter recognition as children learn to engage with stories through a variety of mediums at an early age, so building on this understanding to give more meaning to the first stages of developing literacy can help the child understand the broader importance of being able to recognize words and letters that will facilitate their ability to learn and enjoy more books themselves.
Children of the 21st century will read and write more than any generation has before them with the advent of the internet and the ability to disseminate information more quickly than ever before. In the context of a society that is continually becoming more complex and technologically advanced, literacy is of paramount importance to the proper growth and development of children and their ability to succeed both inside and outside of the classroom. Academic proficiency in every subject will be impacted by how well a child is able to read in general, thus improving literacy is the greatest way to help a child succeed and achieve their academic potential.
Jerrim, John, et al. “Does It Matter What Children Read? New Evidence Using Longitudinal Census Data from Spain.” Oxford Review of Education, vol. 46, no. 5, 2020, pp. 515–533., doi:10.1080/03054985.2020.1723516.
Kern, Margaret L, and Howard S Friedman. “Early Educational Milestones as Predictors of Lifelong Academic Achievement, Midlife Adjustment, and Longevity.” Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2008, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2713445/#R7.
McArthur, Genevieve, et al. “Low Self-Concept in Poor Readers: Prevalence, Heterogeneity, and Risk.” PeerJ, vol. 4, 2016, doi:10.7717/peerj.2669.
Pikulski, John J., and David J. Chard. “Fluency: Bridge Between Decoding and Reading Comprehension.” The Reading Teacher, vol. 58, no. 6, 2005, pp. 510–519., doi:10.1598/rt.58.6.2.
Simmons, Deborah, and Edward Kameenui. “What Reading Research Tells Us About Children With Diverse Learning Needs.” The American Journal of Psychology, vol. 112, no. 4, 1998, pp. 654–658., doi:10.4324/9781410603579.
Sullivan, Alice, et al. “BCS70.” 1970 British Cohort Study, bcs70.info/home/what-have-we-learned/reading-for-pleasure/.