Why the Humanities:'Do we Really Understand Just how Important Reading is to our Future?'

Ann Smith (above, second from left) was awarded the South Dakota Humanities Council Distinguished Achievement in the Humanities Award in 2016 at the South Dakota Festival of Books. She leads the Sioux Falls School District's library program and revels in the rapidly changing information landscape.

Why the Humanities?

By Ann Smith

Editor's Note: "Why the Humanities" is an SDHC blog series explaining the importance of the humanities to our state and nation. The series features guest posts from experts in the humanities disciplines and those who have been touched by humanities programming. The opinions expressed in this series do not represent official views of the South Dakota Humanities Council and are the sole property of the author.

Ann Smith is Director of Curriculum and Instruction for the Sioux Falls Public Schools and a partner in SDHC's Young Readers Initiative.

Test Scores and Reading

There's considerable attention paid to test scores these days—particularly about how well our students perform on reading and math tests. Recently there was an alarm sounded when the 2015 NAEP scores showed that eighth grade reading scores were down compared to the 2013 NAEP. We care about these test scores because we know these skills are important. But do we really understand just how important reading is to our future?

It may not be surprising that the average reading score for high school dropouts is about 55 points lower than for high school graduates, but there are also correlations between reading and important civic indicators. For example, the National Center for Education Statistics reports that 84% of proficient readers voted in the 2000 Presidential election compared to 53% of below basic readers.

Capture Their Attention and Keep Them Reading

When it comes to volunteers—those people who give of their time to keep so many civic activities functioning in our communities—the National Center for Education Statistics reports that 57% of adults who volunteered were proficient readers compared to 18% of volunteers who were below basic readers.

How do we help our students become better readers? Research by Stephen Krashen and others shows that, once students master the basic foundational skills for reading, the most important thing is to engage them in books that capture their attention and keep them reading, reading, reading. This is where the South Dakota Humanities Council comes in. Through their support of the Young Readers One Book South Dakota program, they get books into the hands of students who live in homes where there are no books.

"Owning a book is amazing—meeting the author of that book is beyond amazing. Another young reader, after receiving the book, stated, 'This is the best day of my life. No, this is the second-best day of my life. The best day is when she comes to visit.'"


The students appreciate the books and the experiences that SDHC provides along with them. When Kate DiCamillo's "The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane" was distributed to third graders in Sioux Falls, one young reader hugged the book, saying, "This is the first brand-new book I've ever had—it smells SO GOOD!"

Owning a book is amazing—meeting the author of that book is beyond amazing. Another young reader, after receiving the book, stated, "This is the best day of my life. No, this is the second-best day of my life. The best day is when she comes to visit."

Award-winning children's author Kate DiCamillo visited students in Sioux Falls during the Young Readers Festival.

Award-winning children's author Kate DiCamillo visited students in Sioux Falls during the Young Readers Festival. Credit: Emily Spartz, Sioux Falls Argus Leader

Beyond pure enthusiasm for reading, we've seen other positive effects, as well. In May, prior to receiving DiCamillo's book, 54% of the third grade students reported having a public library card. In September 60% of those students reported having a library card—and that library card is their ticket to the books that can keep them reading and help them become better readers.

While the Young Readers One Book South Dakota program is powerful, it's not the only way the SDHC supports reading in our schools. Every year librarians apply for grants to bring authors into their classrooms.

Through these grants, middle and high school students in Sioux Falls have met authors such as Neal Shusterman, the author of the Unwind series, and April Henry, who took the time to visit with one reluctant reader and recommend several books, including books by other authors!

SDHC: Support from Community and NEH

If test scores are important, it is because they alert us to something that we need to address before it becomes a crisis. If there is concern about reading scores going down, it should result in greater support for entities like SDHC that help get books into the hands of readers.

SDHC is able to support reading in our state because of the generous citizens of our communities—and also because of the support of their parent organization, the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Thank you to the people across this country who support the NEH—and, in so doing, support the young readers of South Dakota.

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