What Does it Take to Read in the 21st Century?

B&W drawing of a brain from the top with lots of texts and formulae expanding to the left of it, and colorful spots to the right of it

Redefining literacy in an ever-changing, digital world


Our previous article chronicled the evolution of communication by illustrating how oral language developed as a natural form of communication, while writing and reading were developed much later as a means of keeping records, and are therefore not natural skills, but rather learned skills. This understanding makes it clear why learning to read and write can be a challenge—they are learned skills that require the brain to rewire connections in order to recognize the markings, letters, and numbers on a page as meaningful symbols, which is the basis of the science of reading framework.

With the science of reading framework in mind, this article will review the Reading for Understanding (RfU) Initiative by the U.S. Department of Education that explored how reading and literacy have changed over the past few decades. Among other things, this initiative led to the creation of a new reading assessment (ETS ReadBasix™ / RISE) focused on specific foundational reading skills that contribute to reading success. You can read the full 300-page RfU report, or read this summary of RfU findings. Now, let’s dive into the RfU Initiative to reveal what researchers found when they looked into what it takes to read in the 21st century.

The Reading for Understanding Initiative (RfU)

In 2009, the Institute of Education Services in the U.S. Department of Education established the RfU Initiative to respond to the stagnant reading comprehension scores observed over the previous three decades. The initiative funded research and development to improve reading comprehension for learners in pre-K through grade 12. Five research teams focused on understanding and improving the development and pedagogy of reading comprehension; and one team, from Educational Testing Service (ETS), focused on assessment.

While evaluating what it takes to read in the 21st century, RfU researchers completed an extensive review of cognitive and science literature and various assessment reforms (e.g., Common Core State Standards, Race to the Top, Partnership for 21st Century Skills, etc.). Researchers found that the meaning of “reading and comprehension” has undergone significant changes over the past few decades; and therefore, how we help children learn across grade levels should also change.

Exponential Growth of Information

A significant change in literacy includes the exponential and continuous growth in the amount of information. Think about this for a minute—according to Internet statistics, in 1994, there were 2,738 websites, and as I write this, there are over 1.9 billion websites. This fact alone illustrates the extreme difference required for skilled reading today as compared to 25-50 years ago. Historically, even during some of our (my) lifetimes, we had limited sources of information—newspapers, encyclopedias, books, radio, and television. With the invention of the Internet, our sources have increased exponentially and continue to increase, which creates various demands on readers.

While students today are digital natives, they require a unique skill set that will enable them to make informed decisions about the credibility of online sources and information. To do this, they must have foundational reading skills that allow them to access the information on the page or screen, AND the ability to think critically to decipher fact from fiction. The need for high-level thinking skills are greater now than perhaps ever before.

African American girl with headphones on is looking at her laptop and writing into a notebook, several books are lying open next to her

Elements of Literacy in the 21st Century

With the understanding of reading demands, RfU researchers identified elements of literacy that inform reading in the 21st century—print, language, text and discourse, conceptual understanding or thinking, and the social nature of reading. Together, these elements make reading look very different from previous decades.


RfU researchers found that the modern understanding of print differs markedly from previous concepts of print. What was once simply understanding the alphabet has turned into recognizing print in different fonts, shapes, and styles. For instance, a reader needs to recognize print that is bolded, italicized, underlined, bulleted in lists, or in different forms of outlines, to name a few.

Additionally, print requires readers to make sense of connected text that includes letters, words, spaces, spelling, and punctuation marks with various text structure indicators, such as indentations, symbols, effects, and titles. Further, readers need to interpret charts, maps, and tables while connecting them to the meaning of the text. All of the variations of print are even more pronounced on digital technologies, which bring about their own difficulties as readers of the 21st century must be able to navigate digital spaces on all sorts of screens and devices navigating web links, drop-down menus, and other web features—these sorts of demands did not exist just a short time ago.


RfU researchers established that language has more impact on comprehension than previously thought. They found that the systems of language—phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics—contribute to reading success. While it has been widely accepted that early literacy rests upon an understanding of the letter-sound relationship, researchers found that an understanding of academic and disciplinary language contribute to more advanced levels of reading comprehension in middle and high school. This means that readers need explicit academic vocabulary and language instruction.

Readers need to know the meaning of general academic vocabulary, which includes words such as analyze and evaluate (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2002) that can be used across multiple disciplines. For example, analyze can be used in several different disciplines: Literary critics analyze a novel; Historians analyze a historical event; and scientists analyze the results of an experiment.

Readers also need to know discipline-specific vocabulary, which is unique to content areas (e.g., Hiebert & Lubliner, 2008). Discipline-specific vocabulary includes technical terms (Harmon, Wood, & Medina, 2009) and values precision in meaning (Fang et al., 2006; Snow, 2010; Snow & Uccelli, 2009). For example, words such as deciduous and flagella, are unique to science, have precise meanings, and are not used across disciplines (Fang, 2006).

The acknowledgement of the role academic language plays in reading success highlights the implicit language of schooling or content-area reading. To truly make sense of academic language, readers need to construct meaning beyond the word level to the sentence and text level. Readers need to know how authors of academic texts condense information into compact sentences and paragraphs, and the techniques authors use to create a sense of authority in what they convey to readers. By understanding the construction of sentences and texts as a whole, readers are able to make sense of complex, academic texts, which ultimately leads to increased reading proficiency.

Text and Discourse.

In building on language knowledge, RfU researchers also found that it is important for readers to understand the construction of texts for various discourse communities (e.g., scientists, historians). Researchers determined that readers need to form a coherent mental memory model of the text’s content that closely aligns with the intended meaning of the text. To do this, readers need to explicitly recognize how various texts are constructed, including text structure and discourse community expectations. For instance, readers need to know how stories differ from informational texts that employ a cause and effect or comparative text structure. Further, they need to know the intricacies of discourse communities, or how specific fields of study construct texts. Understanding discourse communities includes, for example, recognizing how scientists construct texts with a concern for how the world is organized and how it came to be that way (Martin, 1993; Zerbe, 2007), whereas historians present information collected from various sources and try to construct historically accurate texts. It is also important to note that the ever-expanding information available on the Internet requires readers to evaluate the authenticity of the discourse to determine its credibility and relevance to the intended field—which is no easy task.


RfU researchers framed the conceptual element as the knowledge, skills, and strategies that support more complex reading goals to extend meaning beyond basic comprehension while navigating various texts. This means inferring, elaborating, analyzing, synthesizing, evaluating, reasoning, and interpreting multiple sources of information. Given the ever-expanding state of information, being able to critically think and evaluate texts is an essential skill for 21st century readers.


The final element of 21st century reading maintains the idea that reading is a social and cultural construct. Therefore, reading requires understanding the social situation or context surrounding the creation of a text. Readers need to understand the historical and cultural context that informed the writing of a text. For instance, there are significant social implications for a text written during the early months of the global pandemic. Readers who were not alive during this time period or were too young to comprehend what was happening will have to acknowledge the historical time period and the societal events to make sense of the fear espoused by authors.

Further, the cultural context calls for an understanding of the societal implications for the reader after reading the text. The social element suggests that readers recognize multiple perspectives and are able to construct multiple interpretations of a text, which is a sophisticated skill that takes time and a lot of practice to master.

Pensive teacher standing in front of the desk


So, what do these elements of literacy mean for readers of the 21st century? Instructional and assessment implications suggest a drastic change to how readers are taught and assessed.

First, reading instruction requires explicit teaching in all foundational reading skills that lead to basic reading comprehension and in advanced skills that enable readers to perform higher-level thinking, such as analyzing and synthesizing information.

Second, diagnostic assessment is imperative for measuring foundational reading skills that may limit readers’ comprehension and readers’ abilities to utilize advanced skills, as well as for measuring the said advanced skills.

RfU researchers developed two diagnostic assessments to measure foundational reading skills and advanced reading skills. The first assessment, ETS ReadBasix™ (a.k.a RISE), measures word recognition and decoding, vocabulary, morphology, sentence processing, and reading efficiency. This assessment accurately measures and identifies foundational reading skills impeding a reader’s comprehension. The second assessment, ETS ReadAuthentix™ (a.k.a. GISA), measures global reading literacy utilizing a scenario-based approach that requires students to synthesize and evaluate multiple sources of information to solve real life problems or make decisions.

In summary, reading in the 21st century requires a new skill set that supports readers in navigating digital spaces and critically analyzing information. To perform higher level skills, readers first need to master the foundational reading skills that lead to successful reading comprehension. Proficient foundational reading skills and the ability to think critically comprise what it takes to read in the 21st century.

This and many other topics related to the Science of Reading are covered by the Professional Development training that is offered for the ETS ReadBasix assessment.
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