4 min read

The Reading Crisis

About 48 million adults in the United States struggle to read. And it's estimated that more than half of the U.S. population, ages 16-74, reads below a 6th-grade level.

This lack of reading skill makes people vulnerable to scams, misinformation, and predatory business practices. And it's correlated with all sorts of negative outcomes: lower incomes, worse health, etc. It also means that cultural artifacts that you or I might take for granted are simply inaccessible to many people.

An excerpt from P.G. Wodehouse, for instance, gets a Flesch-Kinkaid reading score of 76.86 when I checked it here. That is, it is at a 77th-grade reading level. A score of 4 is supposed to be a 4th-grade reading level, a score of 12 is supposed to be a 12th-grade reading level, and so on.

This is partly a result of how the reading score works: it's likely to be more accurate for grades 1-12, because that is what it's used for. But when I checked a handful of paragraphs from philosopher Peter Lipton – one of the philosophers of science who is, simultaneously, a good writer – I got a score of around 42. An excerpt from one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates got a score of 36.

Anything above 18 is dubbed "extremely difficult to read". The Flesh-Kinkaid reading score website recommends writing to an eighth-grade level. That's a score of... 8. Not 77 or 42 or 36.

There's an appealing logic to this: if I want to communicate with broad sections of the public, shouldn't I write at the appropriate level? No one's going to buy my newspaper if it's "extremely difficult to read". Besides, aren't the examples I cited a bit... academic? The Lincoln-Douglas debate is wordy and contains archaic constructions. Peter Lipton is writing for an academic audience. And P.G. Wodehouse may be funny, but I can just watch an episode of Jeeves and Wooster to experience Wodehouse's humor.

There's another argument in favor of writing at 6th- or 8th-grade reading levels: simple writing is clear writing. Pluck any academic article from the scholarly cloud, for instance, and there's a good chance it will be poorly written: lengthy circumlocutions, laborious explanations, Byzantine constructions. This is Strunk & White's argument all over again: "omit needless words". If you can't say something with simple language, maybe you don't really understand it. And even if you do, your readers may not. Stop writing gobbledygook and say what you mean.

Well, as a gobbledygook aficionado, phooey I say!

Thinking only through the logic of communication misses an important point. When we read something, we aren't just receiving a transmission; we're also learning how to read. Reading skills develop throughout adulthood – as long as we keep reading.

To the extent that reading and writing are modes of thinking, reading is about much more than just figuring out what the message is. It's about learning from the passage – deciphering it, yes, but also challenging it, picking at it, taking it apart, re-assembling it, extending it, and figuring out what the implications are.

And writing is about more than clarity of expression. A passage written at a sixth-grade reading level is not equivalent to one written at a 36th-grade level. Changes in form create changes in content. What is the sixth-grade reading level version of P.G. Wodehouse? What is the sixth-grade reading level of Shakespeare or Austen?

Complex ideas don't come in neat packages. And, in many cases, writing is the process of transforming inchoate, half-thought-out idea-threads into fully fledged arguments and narratives. Every writing decision involves trade-offs. Of course we have to be sensitive to what the audience knows, to the use of unfamiliar vocabulary, and to potentially confusing sentence structures. But we also have to be sensitive to the nature of what we want to say – to the nuances we'd like to convey and to the inferences we'd like the reader to make.

For the States to have such abysmal literacy rates is shameful. I can think of no other single ability that more deeply affects how individuals learn than reading ability. But the solution is not to write everything at an eighth-grade level – it's to teach people how to freaking read.

If you think of reading as knowledge transmission and take a broad meaning of the term "reading" (to include understanding content of any sort - visual, statistical, etc.), then we do not have an "information highway". We have broken, crumbling infrastructure.

Knowledge does not glow. It does not spread across the land like sunlight, obvious for anyone to see. It is locked in various safes, each requiring the right lock-picking skills to access. When we don't provide people with those lock-picking skills, its not just their lives which are affected – it's society as a whole.


Propublica has an excellent exploration of adult literacy in the United States.

The 48 million statistic I got from: America’s Adult Education System Is Broken. Here’s How Experts Say We Can Fix It. by Annie Waldman, Aliyya Swaby and Anna Clark. Propublica. Published Dec 23, 2022. https://www.propublica.org/article/literacy-adult-education-united-states-solutions. Last accessed Jan 29, 2024.

The "more than half of the adult population reads below a 6th-grade level" statistic comes originally from work at the Department of Education and is an oft-cited number. But it's based on a test that uses different literacy levels (not U.S. grade levels because it's an international literacy test – the PIACC) and I couldn't verify the mapping between the PIACC's levels and U.S. grade levels.

The standard line can be found in many online articles, like this. There's a less-than-helpful Snopes article talking about the statistic, here. And the Barbara Bush Foundation published analysis by Gallup on the Dept. of Ed. data, estimating how much the U.S. economy could grow if... y'know, people could read.

To see the data directly, you can explore county and state level data here: https://nces.ed.gov/surveys/piaac/skillsmap/

As with mathematics, reading education has often been mired in controversy in the States, in a tug-of-war between "back to basics," phonics-style of instruction and ones that use a mixture of other strategies (e.g., diagnosing reading problems, building prior knowledge, using context clues). I am not an expert on reading instruction, but I know enough to say "it's complicated" and that the media seems to be oversimplifying the research base. One article critiquing the recent media take is Aukerman, M. (2022) The Science of Reading and the Media: Does the Media Draw on High-Quality Reading Research? Literacy Research Association Critical Conversations. CC BY 4.0 license. https://literacyresearchassociation.org/stories/the-science-of-reading-and-the-media-does-the-media-draw-on-high-quality-reading-research/

There are also innumerable TikTok and Reddit threads discussing a current reading crisis among students (i.e., future adults). More on this, perhaps, in another post.