Results of some recent research needs to be made available to parents, educators, and children everywhere: Reading gives the brain a more thorough workout than previously believed, and needs to remain a primary component of every classroom. This research comes at a critical time, as results of a landmark literacy study show that from 1992 to 2003, the overall illiteracy rates have increased (a summary of the studies in 1992 and the repeated study in 2003 is in the September, 2006, Scientific American, page 32). It is now estimated that by the standards of an information economy, about one-third of all American adults is functionally illiterate, rating as either "below basic" (12%) or "basic" (22%) skills.
Brain imaging technology shows that areas of the brain become active when reading that, up to now, were not known to be active. For instance, an example of reading the word 'cinnamon', activates olfactory portions of the brain (thanks to the Eides for posting this). Reading about 'kicking' activates that area of the brain responsible for leg motion, and reading about 'picking' activates the portion used for hand movements. This involvement of multiple areas of the brain during reading contributes, I would imagine, to the sense a reader gets of not being able to put a good book down because he/she is literally sensing what is happening...there is the mental imaging and reactions taking place in the brain similar to if the reader were actually doing what was being presented in print. As the Eides point out, it does not require virtual imaging experiences to activate the brain so fully, just a good book. These findings support the notion that reading is a tremendous way of learning because of such a dramatic response by the brain when processing the written word.
As for the illiteracy rates, some of this is almost certainly due to larger numbers of immigrants, meaning a larger number and percentage of immigrant children in schools in 2003 compared to 1992, as well as a continuously increasing number of elderly Americans. Age is known to contribute to a decline in literacy skills and abilities. My own experience in schools over the last decade causes me to suggest that kids do spend more time today with video games and other forms of entertainment that do not require any literacy skills than ten years ago, and therefore read less. But to say one in three adults will struggle with literacy in the workplace is still a staggering number. We need to make good use of this type of research to try and convince students and workers that reading is worth the effort and still needs to be a part of one's daily routine throughout life.