Reading helps build more than just vocabulary


Illustration by Jackson Epps

Jackson Epps

For as long as I can remember, I have read every night before I go to bed. There’s always time for a half an hour of reading, whether it means starting your nightly routine earlier, or spending just a little less on your phone. From “Bob Books” to “Harry Potter,” reading has always been something that I’ve looked forward to and benefitted from.

With me are around half of our nation’s 16 to 17-year-olds who read every day or almost every day, according to a 2014 Pew Research study. While I sometimes read for school and to stay updated on news or sports events that I missed, I most often read simply because I enjoy it.

Throughout my 16 years, reading has consistently helped build my vocabulary, improved my writing skills and kept me entertained. But there is a much larger and often unknown implication to literacy levels: avoiding incarceration.

Although a direct link cannot be drawn between low literacy levels and future incarceration, there is a link between low literacy and poor academic performance––which does correlate with incarceration. The Department of Justice states, “the link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure.”

A 2011 study conducted by the American Educational Research Association connected low-reading levels with an incomplete high school experience. A student who cannot read on par with the rest of their classmates by third grade is four times less likely to graduate high school than those who can. Furthermore, high school dropouts are 63 percent more likely to be incarcerated than their peers with four-year college degrees, according to Literacy Mid South, a nonprofit dedicated to providing resources for “learners of all ages and backgrounds.”

Evidently, there is a relationship between reading levels and incarceration rates. This poses an interesting question: why don’t we all read more?

As a white kid who lives in a wealthy neighborhood and attends a top high school, it’s easy for me to read as much as I want. From a very young age, I was supported by my parents who were supported by their parents. But for many of our nation’s young children, this is not the case. 

Much of it has to do with circumstance and opportunity. Those below the poverty line are often not able to advocate for their children to read more for any number of extraneous circumstances. They may not be able to purchase “Bob Books,” “The Magic Treehouse” or “Dr. Seuss” and sit with their child to help them. But, this just exacerbates an already problematic cycleif those that are below the poverty line can’t afford to read, they won’t. Then, when they are below an average reading level, they are statistically inclined to not graduate high school and have a higher likelihood of incarceration.

A New York University (NYU) study of three major U.S. cities found that in many cases there is a scarcity of children’s books in low-income neighborhoods. “Children’s books are hard to come by in high-poverty neighborhoods. These ‘book deserts’ may seriously constrain young children’s opportunities to come to school ready to learn,” said Susan B. Neuman, a professor at NYU. Not reading is not just because of a lack of energy—it’s a system-wide problem that disproportionately affects those below the poverty line and it makes it much harder to escape the effects it brings. 

Reading might not be everyone’s favorite thing, but that doesn’t mean one can’t learn to enjoy it. For many, it is as simple as finding an author or a genre that inspires them and keeps you captivated. Something to look forward to as a final step before falling asleep. Sometimes it’s as simple as recommending a book to a friend, even if they don’t read very often, because it might inspire them.

And, keep in the back of your mind that there is a connection, a prominent connection, between reading levels and staying out of trouble, even if it’s not as drastic as incarceration. Promoting good habits will help your kids, your friends and your family along with those less privileged than yourself, creating a ripple effect that can help keep all of our kids out of trouble.