From the Founder

What Is Reading For?

Recently the New York Times devoted an entire Sunday Opinion section to the question “What Is School For?” What a crazy question, I thought! Being a former teacher, the mother of a teacher and school founder, the granddaughter of a teacher, and a habitual student, I was immediately compelled to read the responses to a question I couldn’t imagine was worth asking.

Most of the essayists responded with answers you’d expect and that you’d probably agree with: that school is for learning to live together, for developing citizens, for exposure to academic excellence and knowledge, for learning to express oneself, and for providing opportunities for social mobility (although, we must admit, those are less and less available to poor and minority Americans who are often trapped in cycles of generational poverty).

But one response shocked me. Professor Bryan Caplan of George Mason University wrote that school was “a waste” of time and money since most people quickly forget what they’ve been taught. He argued that employers are better at providing the training and skills people will need and use in their jobs. In his view, school is mainly useful because it shows prospective bosses that someone has graduated and earned a diploma, signaling that they are perseverant and therefore would be a good hire. Pretty cynical, I thought.

But he did concede that schools were useful for teaching the basics of math and reading, although, he argued, they weren’t doing such a great job even at that.

I welcome this debate right now. A national discussion about literacy and how we teach reading is especially timely given the enormous reading loss we have witnessed due to Covid disruptions of schooling, not to mention the recent movements to ban books and limit what teachers discuss in their classrooms.

As revealed by the National Assessment of Educational Progress on September 1, we learned that reading scores had fallen by the largest margin in 30 years. As reported by the Times, “The declines spanned almost all races and income levels and were markedly worse for the lowest-performing students.” But even the top performers saw declines. “The biggest reason to be concerned,” according to Susanna Loeb, the director of Brown University’s Annenberg Institute and an expert on educational inequality, was that student test scores, “even starting in first, second, and third grade, are really quite predictive of their success in school and their educational trajectories overall.”

Even more alarming, she said, is that “being so far behind, could lead to disengagement in school, making it less likely that they graduate from high school or attend college.” Reading well is absolutely key to children’s success in school and in life.

So how will we as a nation ever make up for that lost instruction and progress, and how can Planet Word be part of the solution?

Since we believe that building a nation of readers is essential to forging a strong democracy — something I think nearly all Americans want — Planet Word should be part of the solution, so we are currently devising ways our museum can do more to support reading teachers.

One solution: we’re adapting and expanding our current field trip offerings. We’re happy to see growing field trip registrations, because we believe a trip to Planet Word can, at the bare minimum, give students a positive disposition toward words and language, laying a great foundation for future reading. And thanks to donors such as Bank of NYMellon, we have funds to get books into the hands of students from Title I schools. We know that the more books students have in their homes, the more likely they are to read and to excel at reading.

Interestingly, in addition to asking “What Is School For?” the Times also asked a related question on their podcast “The Argument.” They asked, “What is reading for?” (emphasis mine).

Reading, the podcasters argued, teaches kids how to think critically, to build empathy, to help kids make sense of the world; it exposes kids to new ideas; it helps them develop their own opinions; it builds vocabulary.

So, if reading promotes all those positive outcomes, how can we make sure students not only learn to read, using the best methods we currently have, but want to read?

By providing books that matter to students, that better reflect their concerns and their lived reality, that they will find relevant. But, they argued, that doesn’t mean simply throwing out the traditional school canon. Instead, they suggested, teach the old texts in new ways — by savoring the best parts of the older works but without being afraid to discuss how beliefs and mores have changed in the meantime.

By having such open conversations, by using words to build understanding, we can also forge a shared heritage and identity as Americans.

If we take this approach, we’ll wind up with better readers, more engaged students, and more informed and empathetic citizens united in our American project. We’re eager for Planet Word to play a part in this much-needed reading renaissance.

— Ann Friedman, founder of Planet Word


Such beliefs about the value of reading went into selecting the original 49 books for Planet Word’s magical Story Table experience. Now we are preparing to add some 20 new books to our Library, so we are inviting local students to submit essays persuading us to add their favorites!