Reading and Writing in Recession

America’s Literacy Lost & How SACS Can Spark Revival


Thomas Hill and Kaitlyn Fry

It’s the first day of school. I’m sitting in my second-period class—Poetry with Mrs. Smith—and she begins to explain that we will be reading five collections of poetry this semester, each with an essay to accompany it. An audible sigh echoes through the classroom, and I’m reminded of a sad reality: the majority of students do not enjoy reading or writing, especially in the context of an English class. Even my brother frequently questions the purpose of having an English class in a society centered on STEM, asking why we read old books and write essays over them when they have no direct relevance to our lives. 

This lack of interest in reading and writing is a tragedy, as people are no longer engaged with literature that explores the human condition or gives insight and commentary on world events, nor are writing to share their ideas or create stories with powerful messages. But besides that, the lack of interest in reading and writing is concerning because it is a strong contributor to the decline in reading and writing proficiency. While proficiency isn’t the only benefit of reading and writing, a decline in proficiency is one of the more concerning outcomes of a loss of interest in English. A decrease in reading and writing proficiency can in turn lead to the loss of critical thinking, loss of cultural knowledge and understanding of ideas, weaker communication skills, loss of job skills and a loss of important societal values and morals.

 Troublesomely, this is the prevailing attitude among students, which should be setting off alarm bells throughout the nation. Undeniably, there is a lack of proficiency in English: data shows a decline in reading and writing ability, especially after valuable time was lost during the pandemic. According to consulting firm McKinsey and Company, “U.S. students ha[ve] lost the equivalent of almost half a school year of reading instruction” throughout the pandemic. While schools are starting to address some of the factors that are contributing to the loss of proficiency, fully addressing the lack of student interest in reading is an additional challenge. Revitalizing reading and writing as a point of interest is important twofold: not only can it help bring proficiency up, but it can ensure that students are reaping the numerous benefits that reading and writing provide in more than just a school setting.

According to data from the American Institutes for Research, “the percentage of public school students who said they read 30 minutes or more a day, besides homework, declined by four percentage points from 53 percent in 2017 to 49 percent in 2019.” Writing ability is in similar decline, and a 2017 article from the New York Times reports that on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), “three-quarters of both 12th and eighth graders lack proficiency in writing.” That same article reports that “40 percent of those who took the ACT writing exam in the high school class of 2016 lacked the reading and writing skills necessary” to be considered college-ready.

The newest numbers, released on September 1st by the NAEP, revealed that reading fell an average of 5 points across the US, and 15 points in the Midwest specifically. Scores are at their lowest levels in years, and students are “at the same reading level as in 2004”, according to Chalkbeat. The Wall Street Journal reported that “the results mark the largest drop in reading scores since 1990.” With the full NAEP report coming out later this fall, this issue becomes ever more pressing as days go by.

American schools are facing a crisis of students who not only don’t want to read and write but can’t. This is a serious problem that needs a solution, and there are two questions that need answered: first, what Southwest Allen County Schools (SACS) is doing to address the nationwide decline of reading and writing proficiency; and second, how SACS is addressing one of the root causes of that decline: students’ lack of interest in reading, writing and English class as a whole.

Proficiency’s Plummet:

The more immediate and easier-to-address problem is the plummet in reading and writing proficiency. While this has its roots at the elementary level, the effects of declined reading proficiency are felt at the middle and high school levels and even in the post-high school world. Students need to be able to use comprehension and clarity in order to be successful in classroom and professional settings. 

Nicole Vickrey, Homestead’s English department chair, understands that the importance of proficiency extends beyond high school: “The department’s goal is to provide students with instruction in reading, writing, and speaking and listening in a way that will prepare them for life beyond high school.  We want students to become critical thinkers and readers and be able to communicate those thoughts effectively.” To accomplish this, there must continue to be a district-wide commitment to developing readers and writers.

In order for the high school English department to achieve its goal of creating effective readers and writers, it has to be provided with students that have mastered the foundational skills required to become proficient readers and writers. Jean Russell, the literacy specialist at Covington Elementary School, explained how SACS builds literacy skills beginning in kindergarten: “There are 5 essential components of reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, comprehension, vocabulary and fluency. … When we are able to systematically, purposefully teach readers starting with phonemic awareness, and then balancing instruction in phonics, comprehension, vocabulary and fluency, readers learn to ‘crack the code’ of words and sentences, meaning and inference.” 

To help keep all students engaged and on track, SACS has programs for both advanced students and those who need some extra help. At the elementary level, the ALPHA program at Aboite Elementary acts as a magnet school to pull in “gifted and talented” students who need advanced instruction. For students who struggle, there is the Title 1 program. Haverhill Elementary Title 1 instructor Michael Stout said: “Title 1 is a program designed to help students get a boost in their reading and mathematics efficiency. Title 1 instructors work with classroom teachers and administrators to identify areas of concern and to implement strategies intended to support student growth.”

These programs expand and reinforce SACS’s balanced literacy approach. Russell detailed the process, explaining that

Building on a foundation of phonemic awareness by orally practicing rhyming words, isolating sounds they hear at the beginning and end of a word, pointing out connections between words, and using descriptive vocabulary are all ways that readers begin to understand how language works. Then, when letters are introduced, they have the conceptual understanding of sounds to start “cracking the code” to read. As children are able to decode words, we discuss the meaning of a book and think about the author’s intent. From there, we build their vocabulary, inference skills, and comprehension with more complex text, teaching them sophisticated ways to solve unknown words like thinking about open and closed syllables, word stems and roots, prefixes and suffixes. With each book, readers need to think deeply about what the author has written, both from their point of view and the author’s. When readers understand that our writing can emulate what we read, they have opportunities to try writing in different voices and to many audiences.

The approach that SACS takes to reading and writing is designed to build on itself. Dr. Lynn Simmers, SACS assistant superintendent, said that the district focuses, “on a K-12 continuum of learning as students transition from one level to the next, … especially pivotal transitions from elementary to middle school  and middle to high school.”

SACS’s approach has paid off; unlike many Indiana schools, SACS has performed well on state assessments like IREAD-3 (ranked 104th of 370 districts)and the 11th-grade SAT (ranked 23rd of 355 districts), which indicates that the district’s strategies—involving both teachers and parents—are working. Despite these positive results, Simmers emphasized that “our entire school community (leaders, parents, students, teachers, and staff members) are committed to continuous improvement. …  We continually want to improve and be better, do better by looking at data.”


IREAD-3 State Average: 81.6% at proficiency

Whispering Meadows Elementary School: 85.1% Aboite Elementary School: 96.0%

Lafayette Meadows Elementary School: 93.6% Haverhill Elementary School: 93.2%

Deer Ridge Elementary School: 88.4% Covington Elementary School: 84.9%

11th-grade SAT State Average: 50.5% at College-Ready Benchmark

Homestead High School 11th grade: 70%


SACS has strong numbers, but there is still room for improvement, as Simmers noted. English and Language Arts teachers in the district have identified areas of weakness that could be targeted for improvement. 

“There is not as much desire from students to advance their reading skills or to polish and perfect a draft of writing,” said Jamie Smith, who teaches Poetry and Film Lit at Homestead. “‘It’s good enough’ seems to be the trend in writing, even if it only reads like a first draft. Simply finishing the essay seems to be the goal, rather than polishing the essay so that ideas are clear. Of course, that doesn’t count the students who WON’T even write the essays at all. … [W]ithout a strong vocabulary developed through reading a variety of content and style, students struggle to be specific and clear in their writing.” 

Dr. David Price, Advanced Placement Literature and Composition teacher at Homestead, has noticed that “we live in a post-literate culture. Few people read and even fewer write. Many students I have taught over the years do not read. Those who do often read books that are simply not worth reading and many ‘readers’ simply do not know how to read.” 

Homestead Creative Writing, Expository Writing and Advanced Composition teacher Scott Hill said he believes “that a decline in reading for pleasure has narrowed the vocabulary and variety of student writing. I see more words spelled by students as if they have clearly never encountered them in print.”

Middle school teachers have also taken note of trends in reading and writing proficiency. 

“I feel I have more reluctant readers than in the beginning of my career.” Susan Mumma, an eighth-grade Language Arts teacher at Summit Middle School, said. “Especially in the last several years, I feel writing is more rushed and abbreviated; for example, I get text-speak in formal writing assignments!” 

Jennifer Rinehart, who teaches sixth-grade Reading at Summit Middle School, agreed with Mumma about reluctant readers: “Student reading levels aren’t as high as they used to be and many kids struggle to have the resilience and drive to finish a book.  They begin a book but then quickly lose interest and struggle to get wrapped up in the story.”

These teachers’ observations illustrate a different reality than the one of SACS’ scores. However, two things can be true at the same time: students can have strong enough proficiency to perform on exams while lacking the interest and dedication to perform in English and Langauge Arts classes. Moreover, it is possible that the standards required from today’s tests are less demanding than the standards that experienced teachers have set in the past. It is possible that students can attain today’s standards and still be behind where students of the same age were 20 years or even 10 years ago.

Although SACS has worked hard to create effective readers and writers who can live up to today’s standards, these skills will fade if students do not have an interest in reading and writing both outside of school and post-graduation. Furthermore, if we want readers and writers to reach the standards of past readers and writers, rekindling an interest in reading and writing is even more imperative. Without a renewed interest, America’s decline in reading and writing proficiency may slow, but it will not stop.

Waning Interest:

“It’s always been a struggle to get students to read at home and outside of school, but now more so than ever.  Books are competing with student cellphones and all that comes with them,” said Rinehart. The data supports her observation; according to a 2018 article in The New Yorker, the proportion of Americans reading “(fell) from 26.3 percent of the population in 2003 to 19.5 percent in 2016.” In addition to this data, teachers in the district shared what trends in reading and writing they have noticed over the years.

“I see many more students interested in fantasy, dystopian fiction, and Anime than when I was in high school. I feel like I see fewer students reading biographies, autobiographies, or contemporary general fiction than when I was in school. I don’t have hard data on this. Just a feeling,” said Jason Beer, who teaches Travel Writing and Novel & Screenwriting at Homestead. With sixth graders, Rinehart has similarly observed “the dramatic rise in popularity of graphic novels.  At one time only a few students enjoyed them and they were usually kids that read comic books at home.” 

Price shared his own theory on why proficiency has declined in tandem with interest:  

Many so-called educators have embraced the notion of skills-based teaching, which means that students are asked to perform tasks and demonstrate proficiency in daily activities focusing on excerpts and short pieces of writing. Many educators have abandoned the notion of sustained reading of complex texts; many have also abandoned the practice of reading books in their entirety. One can only become a good writer by first becoming a good reader, and good reading requires persistence over time in a continuous act of reflection that elicits meaning in language.

Smith had similar concerns about the decline in interest: 

25+ years ago, it wasn’t unusual for me to see students reading books while I was trying to teach (and these were NOT assigned books). I would have to tell them to put the book away and pay attention in class. That definitely doesn’t happen anymore, although I almost wish it would. When I taught AP Literature (at a different school) 16 years ago, students would rush into class enthusiastic about what happened in the reading the night before, wanting to talk about characters and decisions and events. But lately, those discussions don’t happen. I can only assume it is because no one read the assignment because if they had, students would definitely want to talk about it. So basically, the trend seems to be moving away from taking the time to read and enjoy it. Reading and writing take discipline, and they are skills that will regress if not exercised. That concerns me the most.

Technology is another factor that has complicated reading and writing interests. When it comes to reading interest, Hill finds technology a barrier, and said, 

I think it is clear that reading has declined over the past twenty years. Compared to the immediate gratification, the instant dopamine bursts of TikTok and scrolling and streaming episodes of The Office for the third time, reading has a disadvantage. It requires solitude, which is hard to find; I find it hard to read if my phone is even in the room, for example. And I think this epidemic of FOMO anxiety is a problem, too, that a lot of the young, online generation, when they are reading, are always wondering what they are missing, what new meme has dropped that their friends are talking about without them. It’s impossible to concentrate. The thing is, if you can slow down enough to appreciate the solitude of reading, it becomes a beautiful antidote for FOMO. It’s JOMO, the joy of missing out.

Even from an elementary perspective, Russell said, 

Technology has created a challenge to sparking interest in reading. Even applications full of digital books can be hard for a young reader to successfully use because it is so easy to click around from book to book without ever actually finishing one. Readers need daily opportunities to practice what they are learning by reading independently. Technology provides so much stimulation at such a rapid pace that the ability to immerse into a story, allowing an author to slowly unravel a plot and reveal characters, can seem tedious to many of today’s readers. Building stamina with both fiction and nonfiction books is our goal. Ensuring that readers stick with a book to follow the arc of a story, or to read all of the subtopics an author includes about a topic is how readers are exposed to the necessary practice and enjoyment of not just reading, but actually being a reader.

However, some teachers have found technology to be beneficial. English 10 and 11 Homestead teacher Ellen Nelson noted a positive change in writing interest: “Technology is a trend that is very different from when I started teaching. I like how students are more inclined to edit writing because they don’t have to actually hand-write multiple drafts. Revision has taken on a new and easier path. Also, information is a click away—whether it be a model of good writing or a biographical video about an author!”

 Technology’s role in reading and writing is debated, but the district has explored proven methods in an attempt to increase interest. Simmers explained that “the district has implemented several research-based approaches or strategies to encourage a love of reading or positively promote student interest. We know giving students a voice and choice in what they read or write about at school positively increases student interest and engagement.” These approaches seem to be successful, especially at the elementary level. 

Chelsey Kittredge, a first-grade teacher at Lafayette Meadows Elementary School, shared that “engaging students in reading really stems from their interest. We have a lesson about choosing a “just right book”, which includes finding books that interest them. To keep kids interested, I talk to them and observe books they choose for themselves, including observing them during library time and at our Book Fairs.” 

Writing at the elementary level, Kittredge finds, is more difficult: “Writing can be tricky, as it’s not a favorite for a lot of kids. At the beginning of the year, we write Small Moment stories, which are true stories about themselves. It helps them discover that they are writers and they can write about themselves (which they typically love and it comes easier to them).”

Another important tool to encourage student interest in reading and writing is the school libraries. 

“My biggest goal for middle-school level students is to help them find authors or genres that they enjoy reading. When students head to high school, their visits to the school library shift from finding and checking out books to finding information for academic assignments. So I’m trying to help them find themselves as readers with the hope I’ll get them hooked before they get busy with high school and then adult life,” said Ben Moore, media specialist at Summit Middle School. He goes on to share that “this is what happened to me in junior high when my Language Arts teacher connected me with a couple books and authors that hooked me on reading. I had always been a good reader prior to that, but didn’t choose to read for fun. Now, I read every day, even if I can eke out only a short amount of time for reading.” This once again points to choice as a valuable tool to increase student engagement with reading and writing.

Addressing the waning interest in reading and writing, both in and out of the classroom, proves a greater challenge. However, if the decline in interest is not addressed, decreased proficiency will only be one of the adverse effects on American society. As previously mentioned, a society of readers and writers is the prerequisite to a society capable of critical thinking and of communication; a society with a robust vocabulary and understanding of language; a society with cultural knowledge of ideas, job skills and societal values and morals. Helping students (and the general public) to understand the usefulness and importance of reading and writing can help revive interest in them.

Beyond English Class:

A false, yet frequent claim made by students is that the skills learned in English aren’t useful outside of the English classroom setting. However, English is used across all of the core subjects: math, science and social studies all require proficient reading and writing skills, as well as an interest in reading and writing in those subject areas. 

Brianna Lisak has been teaching for seven years. Lisak teaches U.S. and World History. She said that the proficiency in reading is the same.  However she noticed that students have been trying to read so quickly that they do not understand what they are reading. With writing, Lisak has noticed that using correct punctuation and capitalization has gone downhill; she thinks it is because of social media. Lisak knows that some students like reading, but they usually separate that interest from school. Students are often surprised that they have to write outside of English class. Many students don’t know why it is important to write in her class. She thinks that it is important because it gives students the ability to find out what they believe in. 

Lisa O’Dell  has been teaching  for fifteen years and teaches biology. She has seen an increase in texting like writing including abbreviations in assignments. However, O’Dell has seen that students are connecting the reading and writing to ongoing and historical events in the world. This helps students  build interest in reading and writing. O’Dell thinks that it is important to write in her class because “writing allows students to reflect on their thoughts and clearly and thoughtfully express them. I want to understand what they think, and reading their writing allows me to do that.” 

While math classes don’t have much reading and writing there are numerous word problems on homework and tests. Kim Brown teaches geometry and algebra in past years; she has been teaching for seven years. She has noticed a decrease in the ability to comprehend word problems, especially in the latest years and dealing with Covid-19. In the latest years she also noticed that a portion of her students had to retake Algebra or Geometry.

Additionally, the skills learned in English and Language Arts classes are valuable outside of the classroom in both work and social settings. Vickrey said, “considering communication is one of the most essential skills of life, English is necessary.  Beyond high school, people are required to think critically and communicate with others daily.  The skills being taught in our courses allow for students to build these skills for any avenue they pursue post-secondary.” English isn’t just about reading classic literature and writing essays about it, but learning valuable skills that are used in everyday life.

Russell is adamant that reading specifically can help develop skills that are useful outside of the classroom: 

Books teach us. No matter what the author’s original purpose, whether to entertain, inform, or persuade, each book meets us where we are and moves us. Sometimes it is a character to which we relate or one who stretches us to challenge our thinking, other times it may contain an opinion that helps us to see a new idea or confirm our beliefs. Books promote empathy and emotional intelligence. Information is constant in the age of technology, but turning off the internet and allowing our brains to be fully immersed in what an author painstakingly wrote for us from beginning to end, strengthens our brain, creates stamina, increases vocabulary, and expands our schema.  There is even a Yale research study to support that people who read books live an average of two years longer than those who do not.

Empathy, a skill that younger generations place increasing value on, stands out in particular from the benefits Russell listed. Promoting reading as a way to increase empathy and emotional intelligence could be a way to reach middle and high school students who have lost interest in reading.

“From my perspective, we are preparing today’s learners for tomorrow’s opportunities, whatever those opportunities may be. In order to be prepared for work and life, our students must be able to read and write. When I think about those skills learned in an English class, I’m thinking about the Portrait of a Graduate skills that can be practiced. For example, students will still need to be able to collaborate and work with others on projects, and critically gather and interpret information,” Simmers said. “Skills learned in a Language Arts class help us learn to communicate with others. Regardless of the intended job field, we need to be able to read and comprehend and make inferences, so I would argue that they are inextricably linked to situations that will be encountered in the real world.”

The skills practiced in English are undeniably useful in both other subjects and experiences beyond the classroom. Explaining to students how these skills can be applied to the wider world is a simple way to increase student interest. Students want to learn things that they know will help them in the world outside of school, and when the connection between a class at school and real life isn’t clear, they lose drive and interest in learning about that subject. Simply providing justification for the classes students are required to take is an easy step to revive interest in reading and writing.

Reviving Reading & Writing:

On the global stage, the US ranks 13th in reading, according to the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). While SACS has found ways to maintain proficiency in reading and writing, the rest of the nation has not been so successful. Additionally, SACS needs to continue addressing the declining interest in order to ensure that students carry both proficiency and passion for reading and writing into the rest of their lives, as well as raise student skill levels to the standards of years past.

There is some hope for reviving reading and writing. Remember that The New Yorker article from earlier? It also found that among those who did read, people “spent 1.39 hours reading in 2003, rising to 1.48 hours in 2016.” This means that existing readers are reading more; ergo, if we can hook more students on reading and writing, the amount of time they spend reading should increase over time.

SACS has already made headway into reviving interest in reading and writing: investing time and money into creating well-developed libraries, encouraging teachers to allow students to choose what they want to read and write, creating curriculums that build readers and writers from kindergarten up and encouraging teachers to demonstrate a love of reading to their students.

Simmers placed emphasis on the importance of that last aspect, insisting that teachers and staff should be “modeling the joy of reading on a consistent basis, whether that be reading aloud in a kindergarten classroom or reading [their] own book during independent reading in a 5th-grade classroom.” These are important steps, but there is more that can be done: placing an emphasis on the “why” behind what students do in English class; sharing the benefits—both personal and societal—of reading and writing; building reading stamina throughout a K-12 education; and, critically, meeting students where they are at.

Vickrey emphasized the role that parents can play in revitalizing reading and writing: “Another important piece of building readers and writers is adults reading to children. Introducing the reading process in those early years, even when it’s mostly just pictures, helps in developing those language skills early on.” Families can help hook their kids on reading and writing before they even set foot in a school, acting as an extra influence to reinforce the importance of reading and writing. 

While talking about the changes in English over the years, Simmers shared, “The one thing that always comes to mind when we talk about change is a Hebrew proverb: ‘Do not confine your children to your own learning, for they were born in another time.’” This proverb is displayed on the wall in Simmers’ office and is her mantra when it comes to educational opportunities for children. To revive reading and writing will require educators to meet students where they are—in a world of technology—and still find a way to turn them into readers and writers.

“Reading teaches us, strengthens connections in the brain, improves memory and concentration, increases vocabulary, and sometimes even reduces a person’s overall stress,” Simmers added, listing some of the practical benefits of reading.

Teachers are optimistic that reading and writing will persist and recover despite the challenges, and are willing to work to make that hope a reality.

“If you have ever been present when a reader actually has their ‘aha’ moment, and the letters on the page become words, and the words begin to have meaning, it is like fireworks and rainbows and the winning touchdown all wrapped up into one of the most exciting experiences you will ever have!” Russell said. “It never, ever gets old. I am motivated and excited to walk into school every day. Honestly, it is the very, very best job in the whole world.”

“I think it goes back to the human desire to hear and tell good stories,” said Beer. “Hearing good stories can be challenging, entertaining, and morally enriching. Writing good stories can help us feel that we are creating something of value, that we’re putting something into the world that matters, something that quite possibly makes the world a better, more understandable, more beautiful place.”