By Judy Newman and Marisa Silver
Have you ever wondered why so much importance is placed on a student reading by the end of third grade? Reading proficiently by the end of third grade is one of the most reliable predictors of high school graduation. It is a critically important component of equity.
The foundational skills for learning to read begin building from birth. When you hold an infant in your arms or on your lap and read to them, they probably do not understand the words being read, but a loving and secure attachment is reinforced.
This forms the foundation for healthy brain development and future learning.
Toddlers and preschoolers learn the meaning of words and develop their vocabulary as adults read to them, talk to them, sing to them and encourage conversations. By 24 months, the size and complexity of a child’s vocabulary can predict third grade reading proficiency.
We must help all children have secure and loving homes, supported parents, access to safe housing, food and health care. We must work to eliminate gaps and inequities and ensure that all students begin kindergarten with their needs met. We also know that high quality, developmentally appropriate early learning experiences, environments and relationships lead to better academic outcomes for young learners. Students who have these elements in place from birth to age 5 are better prepared for a positive experience in school.
It is important to create a smooth and welcoming transition into school for children and parents. Kindergartens must be prepared to engage children in learning and emphasize the importance of attendance to parents. This is a time to focus on social-emotional skills, self-regulation and learning-to-learn skills.
In first, second and third grades, the focus is on the nuts and bolts of reading — letters have names and sounds and together they make words, phrases and sentences that have meaning. There is a proven approach to teaching reading that we know increases success for all students. This includes decoding, building vocabulary and comprehension and enriching the experience with literature.
When teachers use proven reading approaches, they can identify reading struggles early on and help with timely support so students can be successful. By the end of third grade, literacy instruction shifts from decoding to more in-depth reading skills. Students shift from learning to read, to reading to learn. At this stage, students use their reading skills to access information, read non-fiction books and explore new subjects. Research-based literacy instruction, when combined with student voice and choice over what they read, allows all students to become skilled, independent readers with vibrant interests that will serve them well as they progress into higher grades.
Parents and teachers can encourage independent reading by focusing on a child’s interests. Kids are eager to become experts; ask them what they’d like to learn about. Help them find books they can’t wait to read. Provide them with lots of reading material related to their interests. From dragons to demigods, Minecraft to the Mars Rover, spies to sports, there are kids’ books and magazines related to countless topics. Kids need exposure to a large quantity of reading material to become proficient, confident readers. In our community, public libraries offer free library cards, and students can also access digital library resources such as eBooks and research materials from home on their district-issued devices.
Reading to learn opens up all sorts of opportunities for kids. Students who leave elementary school with strong reading skills in fluency, vocabulary and comprehension can understand the secondary curriculum more easily in middle school, high school and beyond. Science, social studies, English, electives and even math courses rely heavily on a foundation of reading skills. Students with stronger reading skills engage with these subjects with stronger background knowledge and experience greater success in middle school, high school and beyond.
The foundation and skills to become a proficient reader begin at birth and build each year. It is our responsibility as public-school leaders to provide this foundation to every child. Reading proficiency by the end of third grade is an important benchmark towards ensuring that every student graduates from high school ready for their next step in life.
Judy Newman is on the Eugene 4J School Board running for re-election. She is the co-founder of Early Childhood CARES. Marisa Silver is a fourth-grade teacher at Camas Ridge Community School.