In the game of reading, third-grade graduation is the 50-yard line, the place where children cross over from learning to read to reading to learn. More than a third aren't ready. Their chances for reaching the end zone (high school graduation) are already diminished. They've barely begun the second quarter of their academic careers.
Among fourth graders, 36 percent read below the basic level--a fact that has not changed significantly since the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading assessment was first administered in 1992. Addressing the problem through grade retention, special education assignments, and long-term remediation can be costly. Research suggests a comprehensive game plan:
Promote high-quality, early education programs The majority of special education referrals are related to problems with reading or language. High-quality pre-K and kindergarten services, especially for low-income children, could help children gain experiences, general knowledge and language skills that get them ready to read. Begin explicit instruction in phonemic awareness by kindergarten.
Adopt a balanced, standards-based curriculum Higher reading achievement is associated with curriculum that includes explicit, systematic skills instruction and meaningful engagement with print.
Develop a reading assessment program Diagnosing reading problems as children enter the first grade allows for the most effective and cost-effective interventions. Without intervention, 88 percent of children who are poor readers in first grade will still be poor readers in fourth grade.
Provide appropriate intervention Most children learn to read through regular classroom instruction, but up to 40 percent may need additional help. Of these, 90 percent to 95 percent respond to appropriate interventions. Classroom teachers may need support in identifying appropriate research-based intervention strategies. Consider turning the best reading teachers into "coaches" who develop the expertise of all teachers instead of using these teachers in pull-out programs.
Organize schools for success Make reading a priority. Publicize standards. Minimize interruptions to maximize academic learning time. Give teachers opportunities to learn together.
Strategically enlist parents and community Help parents and community members understand how to foster pre-reading skills among the young children they know. Offer training and incentives to engage parents and community members in well-coordinated tutoring and read-aloud programs. A caution: volunteers can provide children with practice and motivation but are no substitute for professional intervention services.
Provide professional development for teachers Research shows that no reading program or supplemental service can take the place of a classroom teacher who is knowledgeable and skilled in using multiple strategies to teach reading.
It's not over 'til it's over For low-income students especially, reading scores often dip around the fourth grade, even among children whose achievement was previously on par with the general population's. These children may continue to need help in building vocabulary and understanding abstract language.
The Pre-K Advantage
A 2000 study listed pre-K as one of four factors contributing to Texas' top standing in achievement gains among poor children between 1990 and 1996. In Georgia, among a sample of 3,600 children who had attended the state's universal voluntary pre-K program for four year olds, 82 percent were later found to be ready or "extraordinarily" ready for third grade. A follow-up study of Chicago's Child-Parent Centers found that preschool graduates had a lower rate of special education placement and grade retention and a higher rate of school completion than students in a control group. Comprehensive family services (including intensive parent activities) and a well-trained, well-compensated staff were keys to all these programs.
In the last decade, the number of fourth-grade students not at basic reading level, according to NAEP results, has not changed dramatically. In 1992, 38 percent of students scored "below basic." That number rose to 41 percent in 2000, but in 2002, the number of students below basic was 36 percent.