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Importance of Reading for Elementary Students

The Center for Public Education states, “Reading is the Open Sesame for acquiring knowledge: learn to read, and you can read to learn just about anything.” Children begin the process of learning to read long before entering school as they acquire vocabulary and background knowledge. But when they enter school, it is not long before they can and must use reading skills and strategies to learn all about the world around them in every subject and content area.

Teaching Reading and Comprehension Skills

Reading is a complex process, involving skills such as decoding, making predictions and asking questions. Good readers know sight words, use context clues to understand unfamiliar vocabulary, and reach into their background knowledge to make connections from what they know to what they want to learn.

Teaching children to read is a complex process, too. Students come to the classroom with a variety of abilities and learning styles. Experiences, family dynamics, and health and nutrition affect how children learn. And those who teach reading at any level must help children of every learning style and ability acquire the skills required to comprehend text in all subject areas. According to the National Academies Press, “Teachers of reading are called on to prepare students to interpret complex ideas, critically analyze arguments, synthesize information from multiple sources, and use reading to build their knowledge.”

While the traditional theory that children learn to read in the primary grades and read to learn in later years is somewhat controversial, the bottom line remains the same: Children who can read fluently will be more successful in school.

Reading in Content Areas

In The Reading Teacher Magazine, author and professor of literacy education Barbara Moss states, “The ascendance of standards-based education throughout the United States has clearly helped heighten interest in students’ ability to read informational texts. In almost every state, language arts standards related to reading and writing informational-text genres now appear at kindergarten and extend through the high school level. Requirements that teachers address these standards at every level have made educators more aware of their importance.”

Reading and comprehension skills in math class have become an area of particular concern. Teachers report that it is not uncommon for students who excel in math to complain about “word problems.” Students who may be able to calculate arithmetic problems and break records in “Mad Math Minute” exercises may read through a standardized test problem and say, “I don’t know what to do!”

Teachers are facing the fact that real-life problems involving math knowledge are seldom presented as a worksheet full of four-step multiplication problems. Instead, in contemporary test settings where students are asked to evaluate and solve realistic problems, students’ reading skills must support grade-level math ability. According to the Intercultural Development Research Association, “Reading and writing activities can help students analyze, interpret and communicate mathematical ideas. These are skills needed to evaluate sources of information and the validity of the information itself, a key competency for mathematically literate citizens.”

In addition to using reading and writing skills in math, the skills required to process both math and reading are very similar. The ability to predict, infer, compare and contrast, and determine cause and effect are necessary to work through both math problems and intricate reading passages. When a student is successful in one area of learning, it is more likely they will be able to transfer some of their skills to another area. At the elementary level, this ability to transfer builds a foundation of understanding and independence that will serve young students well as they mature and progress.

Consequences of Illiteracy

For most students, the ability to read is foundational to a successful education. Tomie dePaola, author and illustrator of over 200 children’s books, once said, “Reading is important, because if you can read, you can learn anything about everything and everything about anything.”

The opposite is true as well. Children who cannot read are unable to keep up with their peers in almost every academic subject. In fact, according to a study by Donald J. Hernandez and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “Results of a longitudinal study of nearly 4,000 students find that those who do not read proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to leave school without a diploma than proficient readers. For the worst readers, those who could not master even the basic skills by third grade, the rate is nearly six times greater.”

Value of Independent Reading

The ability to read influences more than graduation rates. People of all ages who read fluently are more likely to read independently, and the benefits of reading independently extend far beyond academic success.

Students who read independently and fluently are more likely to attend college or engage in professional trades. The National School Board Association (NSBA) gathered data supporting the conclusion that adults with low reading skills are more likely to experience poor health, be unemployed, or, if employed, earn much less than those with high reading skills. Unfortunately, the NSBA also reports that “adults with the lowest literacy skills are the least likely to engage their own children in activities that promote literacy development, such as reading to them or playing rhyming games.”

A national study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education states, “Voluntary reading involves personal choice, reading widely from a variety of sources, and choosing what one reads. Aliterates, people who have the ability to read but choose not to, miss just as much as those who cannot read at all. Individuals read to live life to its fullest, to earn a living, to understand what is going on in the world, and to benefit from the accumulated knowledge of civilization. Even the benefits of democracy and the capacity to govern ourselves successfully depend on reading.”

Experienced teachers who want more in-depth study about reading and comprehension can earn a post-graduate degree such as the Master of Education in Elementary Education from Mississippi College. This NCATE-accredited program will reinforce the skills necessary to help you launch your students into a more successful personal and professional future.

Learn more about the MC online M.Ed. in Elementary Education program.


International Literacy Association: Making a Case and a Place for Effective Content Area Literacy Instruction in the Elementary Grades

IDRA: What Is the Importance of Reading and Writing in the Math Curriculum?

Center for Public Education: Learning to Read, Reading to Learn

The Annie E. Casey Foundation: Double Jeopardy: How Third-Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation

American Library Association: Independent Reading and School Achievement

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