How Lifelong Readers Are Helping Communities Thrive - Digital Promise

How Lifelong Readers Are Helping Communities Thrive

October 12, 2017 | By

It’s a well-known fact: A child who develops a love of books and reading will recognize a lifetime of benefits.(1-4, 25-26) While children who visit the library to immerse in their favorite books may not realize it at the time, they’re building the skill of thoughtful reading—the foundation of critical thinking, academic success, and, eventually, a happy and productive adult life.(1, 2, 3, 4) As Charles Bayless has written, “For the majority of young people, enthusiastic and habitual reading is the single most predictive personal habit for the ability to achieve desirable life outcomes.”(3)

The U.S. Department of Education maintains that avid reading lays the groundwork for improved grades and acquisition of skills in school, and points to quantifiably better outcomes in adult life for children who read versus children who do not read, as measured by income, chosen profession, and employment.26

Now there’s growing evidence that when individuals embrace the “magic” of lifelong reading, the larger community also thrives. Families and entire communities reap the benefits. The International Literacy Association champions the cause of reading and articulates measurable impact in critical areas such as:

  1. Poverty. According to UNESCO, if all the world’s children could be taught how to read, 171 million people would be lifted out of poverty without any further intervention. That’s the population of Spain, Italy, and the United Kingdom combined.(15)
  2. High School Graduation. One in six children who can’t read on grade level by third grade fails to graduate from high school on time— four times the rate for children with proficient third-grade reading skills.(24)
  3. Mortality. When women become literate, child mortality plummets. Worldwide, literacy efforts over the past four decades are credited with halving the death rate among children under the age of five. In Japan, which has a 99% literacy rate, infant mortality is just 2 per every 1,000 live births.(16,17)
  4. Economic Growth. Just one additional year of school boosts an individual’s earnings by as much as 10%. The payoff for society is even greater. For every $1 invested in adult literacy, a society recoups $7.14. But it takes a critical mass to realize the full benefits. UNESCO reports that to achieve and accelerate continuous economic growth, at least 40% of the population must be taught to read and write.(15,18)
  5. Voting. In the United States, adults who participated in literacy programs were more likely to register to vote and become involved in community affairs.(19)
  6. Health and Happiness. Literacy goes hand in hand with the fight against communicable and chronic diseases. Educated mothers are 50% more likely to immunize their children. Adults who can read well enough to understand health and medical information report not only improved health outcomes, but also greater levels of happiness. A UK survey of adults revealed that 78% of literate people were satisfied with their lives, as opposed to just 50% of the illiterate.(20, 21, 22)

While impressive, these outcomes are not distributed equally to everyone who achieves literacy. They have the greatest impact on those individuals (and through them, their societies) who read frequently, on a wide variety of topics, and for extended periods of time.(9, 10) These avid readers develop the deep background knowledge to perform at a high level.(9, 11) The benefits are most striking when measured for individuals who are otherwise disadvantaged. Studies have indicated that access to books reverses the impact on reading scores associated with poverty.(5, 6, 7) Moreover, when students become avid readers, the achievement gap between students of color and their peers disappears.(14)

Independence and access matters, too

Research has repeatedly shown that children develop a love for reading when they can choose their own reading materials.(12) In fact, a single, brief exposure to good reading material can result in a lifelong love affair with books. Children of poverty typically have little access to books(8), yet current trends in literacy education focus on other issues such as digital literacy and early childhood learning styles. While important, these issues make little impact on igniting the minds of K-12 students with quality, relevant, and engaging books and content—the critical component for creating lifelong readers.

What can be done?

Public libraries, school libraries and classrooms can tackle the problem head-on through thoughtful collection development. Baker & Taylor and Kirkus Media recently launched an initiative ( that focuses on diversity across the fabric of society, from age and gender to ethnicity and lifestyle. Curated collections on disability, Latinx, LGBTQIAP+ and ethnicities enable libraries to address the needs of their communities for books that reflect where our society is today, with titles that invite young people, parents, and the wider community to read and discuss(23, 13). Through programs like Community Sharing, public libraries can partner with schools to provide these age-appropriate resources, greatly expanding student access to books both for school work and for the all-important independent reading.

Literacy makes for a better community for all

Community-wide literacy makes for a better community. We at Baker & Taylor and Follett are constantly encouraging children, parents, librarians, educators, companies and public institutions to support and enable reading, in and out of school by supporting family reading nights, book clubs and drop-everything-and-read type concepts. The products and programs we develop reflect this passion. The readers of this world have better outcomes for their own lives and become the people who generate ideas which lead to progress and innovation in solving the complex problems of our world. Will providing wide and uninterrupted access to books lead to a cure for cancer or solutions for the energy crisis or world poverty? It just might.


  1. Stanovich and Cunningham 2000
  2. Atwell 2007
  3. Bayless 2010
  4. Robinson 2010
  5. Achterman 2008
  6. Evans, Kelley, Sikora, and Treiman 2010
  7. Schubert and Becker 2010
  8. Krashen 2004
  9. Guthrie 2008
  10. Atwell 2007
  11. Worthy and Roser 2010
  12. Allington 2012
  13. Barbara Moss and Terrell Young (2010)
  14. Swan et al. 2010
  24. How Third-Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation By Donald J. Hernandez Professor, Department of Sociology Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York and Senior Advisor, Foundation for Child Development
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