[Foundational Literacy Skills] Why Reading By the Third Grade Really Matters

Monday, March 13, 2017 -- McKenna Wierman

Reflecting back on our own formative years, we don’t normally think about the third grade as a milestone in life. Most of us can remember the names of our teachers, who our friends were, a funny story or two, and not much else. But, when academics are concerned, the third grade is one of the most important years in a child’s education because it is a critical time for developing reading and literacy skills.

According to this report published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, third grade marks the time in a child’s education where they transition from learning how to read, to understanding what it means to read to learn. In a nutshell, this means third graders are graduating from simply mastering the basics of phonics, vocabulary, and other building blocks of literacy to grasping how to read in order to process complex information, think critically, solve problems, and apply concepts they read about to real world situations. Reading to learn allows students to take control over their own learning, by using reading skills to gain more information on other subjects in school, or their own interests outside of the classroom.

Reading to learn is a critical skill for students to master, as it lays the foundation for a child’s academic and overall future success. Without adequate reading and literacy skills, students are less likely to understand what they are being taught at higher grade levels, more likely to struggle in other subjects, and may even be more likely to exhibit social anxieties or low self-esteem as a result.

It may seem hard to believe reading skills in the third grade could have such an enormous impact on the future of a child’s academic career and social success. Many educators have heard the rumor that prisons use third grade reading scores to predict the number of beds they’ll need in the future. While claims like that are not true, there’s no denying that low reading proficiency in the third grade has long-term negative effects on a child’s future. And what’s truly problematic is that millions of American children are entering the fourth grade without having attained the level of reading proficiency they need for continued academic success.

Insufficient reading skills expose students to the risk of a domino-effect of academic struggles. Low reading proficiency inevitably makes grasping more-advanced level academic concepts challenging, but also impedes social development, leading to a higher likelihood of dropping out of school without a high school diploma. In term, without a diploma, students are significantly more likely to experience unemployment, poverty, and even incarceration.

Acknowledging the importance of early literacy, many states have actually enacted legislation around reading by the third grade initiatives. All but a handful of states assess for reading proficiency in or before the third grade, and in fifteen states, students are required to demonstrate proficiency in order to be promoted to the fourth grade. In twelve of these states, students can avoid retention by participating in an intervention program like receiving supplemental instruction during or beyond the school day, working with a reading specialist, or utilizing an online practice program. Increasingly, researchers are encouraging policy makers to adopt legislation that focuses on comprehensive solutions for early reading deficiency identification and intervention instead of simply retention versus promotion.

The evidence is clear; developing proficient reading skills in all students by the third grade is a must. What can educators do to ensure students are developing the literacy skills that will put them on the path toward future academic, social, and career success? Here are several simple classroom strategies to try:

  • Set aside 15-20 minutes of class time each day to devote to group or independent reading
  • Consistently emphasize the joy and discovery of reading by sharing your own love for it
  • Institute “reading logs” to help ensure that students are reading outside of the classroom—and make sure you have a way to reward their efforts and successes!
  • Utilize literacy stations in the classroom to engage students in reading and build well-rounded skillsets
  • Create a comfortable, inviting classroom library
  • Talk to students’ parents about the importance of reading outside the classroom, and help them create literacy-rich environments in their homes
  • Monitor students (including older students) for reading deficiencies and quickly provide necessary interventions

Third grade may seem like just another year in elementary school, but when it comes to literacy skills, it’s so much more than that. The third grade is a turning point in the journey all students embark on from learning-to-read to reading-to-learn. This transition is a keystone moment in a child’s life-long learning ability; educators and parents alike need take full advantage of this window of time in to hone in on literacy skills and build proficient readers.

Interested in learning more about Edmentum’s online resources to support literacy learning? Check out Reading Eggs and Reading Eggspress, our foundational 2-in-1 literacy solution built around the five pillars of reading!

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