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Journal Issue: Literacy Challenges for the Twenty-First Century Volume 22 Number 2 Fall 2012

Literacy Challenges for the Twenty-First Century: Introducing the Issue
Richard J. Murnane Isabel Sawhill Catherine Snow


Advanced literacy is a prerequisite to adult success in the twenty-first century. By advanced literacy we do not mean simply the ability to decode words or read a text, as necessary as these elementary skills are. Instead we mean the ability to use reading to gain access to the world of knowledge, to synthesize information from different sources, to evaluate arguments, and to learn totally new subjects. These higher-level skills are now essential to young Americans who wish to explore fields as disparate as history, science, and mathematics; to succeed in postsecondary education, whether vocational or academic; to earn a decent living in the knowledge-based globalized labor market; and to participate in a democracy facing complex problems.

The literacy challenge confronting children, their families, and schools in the United States has two parts. The first is the universal need to better prepare students for twenty-first-century literacy demands. The second is the specific need to reduce the disparities in literacy outcomes between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and those from more privileged homes.

This issue of the Future of Children explores the literacy of America's children and how to improve it. We begin this introductory essay by reviewing briefly why literacy is so important in today's world and why the concept of literacy needs to be broadened to include a set of competencies that go well beyond the ability to recognize words and decode text. We end with a summary of the other articles in the issue and briefly consider what steps policy makers might take to respond to the urgent needs we cite.