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Why Early Literacy Matters

A recent Read Charlotte-commissioned study by researchers at UNC Chapel Hill examined the relationship between early literacy and a range of later social outcomes. Researchers used a national dataset to find that early literacy provides protective factors across a range of social outcomes in the teens and early twenties. Improving early literacy – even controlling for individual and family differences – increases outcomes for college application, college graduation, household income, and employment. In short, getting children to reading proficiency in elementary school is a “super strategy” for increasing economic and social mobility and their chances for a happy and healthy life.

This study was underwritten by a grant from The Duke Endowment.


Compared to their peers with above average reading ability, students who have below average reading ability in Grades 3 and 4:

Have 25% less household income in their early-to-mid twenties.
Are almost
two times as likely to not attend college.
Are almost 50% more likely to experience unemployment in their early-to-mid twenties.
Are more than
two times
as likely to not apply to college.
more likely to report feeling depressed in their early-to-mid twenties.
Are 25% more likely to report substance abuse in their early-to-mid twenties.
We think the difference in above average and below average reading ability in these data loosely translates to the difference between College and Career Ready and Not Proficient on state reading tests.

Data are from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979. It includes data from 11,545 children born between 1970 and 2006 to women in the original NLSY79 sample. Data were collected through surveys conducted every two years from 1996 to 2016. Literacy was measured before kindergarten and in late elementary (third and fourth grade) and outcomes were measured in teens and twenties. The analysis controlled for differences in individual and family background, including sex, race, birth order, family income, books in the home, etc.

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