LeVar Burton and Reading Rainbow logo Image courtesy of Reading Rainbow

A big news story this week was the campaign to fund a free version of LeVar Burton’s popular public television show (now an app), Reading Rainbow. Burton’s goal is to deliver the program as a multiplatform app to underserved public schools throughout the US (see LeVar Burton On Reading Rainbow’s Kickstarter And The Love Of Reading). Although critics claim that the program is a waste, as it doesn’t actually teach anyone how to read, Burton’s response is calm: he says that the show wasn’t about phonics, but about literacy.

Literacy is a slippery concept. On the one hand, there is the very obvious difference between a person who is literate (able to read at a given level) and one who is illiterate (unable to read). On the whole, the 19th and 20th century saw rising literacy levels throughout the developed world; currently, Africa is the main area with low adult literacy levels (UNESCO International Literacy Data 2013). A newer, but no less important, problem is the rising number of aliterate children — that is, those who know how to read but would prefer not to. This is the population that Reading Rainbow aims to reach, according to Burton.

But why is this important? After all, isn’t reading a sort of old-world skill?

Well, yes and no. Reading is very old, but it’s still a crucial means of communication (reading online counts!). Yet not all reading is created equal: while work-based memos and loans are crucial for living independently, such practically-oriented material doesn’t confer any further benefit. Recent studies have suggested that reading fiction does offer more than just improved reading skills (see Your Brain on Books: 10 Things That Happen to Our Minds When We Read, Brain function ‘boosted for days after reading a novel’, and 7 Unconventional Reasons Why You Absolutely Should Be Reading Books), and people who never gain a taste for reading end up missing out.

That being said, literacy itself is still a problem in every part of the world. One in five adult Australians is considered illiterate, the same as 30 years ago (Repeat after me: Literacy levels can improve); in Canada, the figure was almost 50% ten years ago (The Soapbox: No excuse for sagging literacy rates) and recent estimates reinforce that (adult literacy rates of roughly 42%: Literacy organizations say federal government abandoning them). The US is doing better: the National Assessment of Adult Literacy reports that only 10-15% of adults could not meet basic proficiency requirements, defined as “simple and concrete literacy skills” (for example, they might be able to read a street sign, but not the newspaper: NAAL). Differences in literacy percentages between different countries may relate to testing, rather than education. Even so, it’s sad to think that 88% might be peak literacy (remember, this is the ability to read, not enjoying it). So the next time you have a spare moment, trying picking up a book instead of your smartphone. And maybe donate some of your old books to a library. It can’t hurt.

… But you don’t have to take my word for it.

About the Author: Jaclyn Neel is a visiting Assistant Professor in Ancient History at York University in Toronto, Ontario.