Why third grade is a pivotal year for reading

Third grade is often considered the moment in a student’s life when she makes the transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” — a make-or-break period for academic success. Teachers have long prepared young students for this critical time by focusing on early-reading milestones from kindergarten through third grade. As awareness of the long-term implications of third-grade reading has grown, policy makers have taken notice. More than 30 states have enacted legislation that focus on third-grade reading, making it an increasingly pervasive issue.

Here are the five key points to understanding the importance of third-grade reading.

It’s never too early. Establishing the necessary skills for reading by third grade is essential. Research has shown that 75 percent of students who struggle with reading in third grade never catch up. In fact, those students are four times as likely to drop out of high school. Early screening with technically sound tools helps identify at-risk students and their needs. And the right research-based intervention can change the learning trajectories for those students.

Research has shown that 75 percent of students who struggle with reading in third grade never catch up. In fact, those students are four times as likely to drop out of high school.

Fourth grade really is different. Traditionally, the curricular materials students encounter in fourth grade are more complex, not just in terms of the text but in the concepts and information they convey. In the fourth grade, science and social studies requires more reading grounded in the academic vocabulary and ideas of those domains. Math includes word problems that rely on strong reading comprehension. It’s big leap, and many of the students who are not prepared begin the difficult-to-reverse cycle of avoiding reading.

It’s a social justice issue. Kids in economically fragile communities read with far less proficiency by third grade than their better-off counterparts. This means that by third-grade they can already expect fewer of the socioeconomic advantages that come with a college education; their path is, to a certain extent, already set. And though third-grade reading proficiency has improved overall in the past decade, we see most of those gains in students from middle-class backgrounds, so the achievement gap is actually widening. This is appalling. We must take more steps to mitigate the disparity, including increasing access to preschool and academically rich summer activities. The biggest and most important challenge, however, is to implement research-based instructional practices driven by data in all grade K-3 classrooms.

We should aim higher. The fourth-grade National Assessment of Educational Progress tests reveal huge gaps among how states define reading proficiency. No state defines proficiency at the same high level as NAEP; a few approach it. But many more define proficiency at a much lower level in a trend that’s been called “race to the bottom.” But the NAEP assessment helps us to see that third-grade reading goes beyond the basic decoding skills students need to read; they must also have the ability to pull together the various technical elements of reading with meaning and higher-order thinking to be successful with increasingly complex text. So when it comes to third-grade reading, we need to stop assuming that students are O.K. when they meet the “low-bar” definition of reading. We really need to aim for the high bar for all students.

We need data. Because reading involves so many skills and strategies, it’s important to gain a comprehensive understanding of students’ performance on the key indicators of reading success to know how to tailor instruction to address specific student needs, before it’s too late. In the very younger grades, observational assessments are critical. Through one-to-one interactions between educators and students, observational assessments offer invaluable insights into how students approach reading, especially those early reading skills that are difficult to understand without listening to a student produce sounds, and read words and text. Moreover, these assessments are a kind of built-in P.D. for teachers in the early grades. Observational assessments attune teachers to the specific reading behaviors to look for in and out of the assessment environment.

Anne Kel-Artinian is executive director of content strategy for Amplify’s assessment products. Danielle Parisi is an ELA research scientist for Amplify.