Why 3rd Grade Literacy Is Pivotal

In my recent post about the current status of the academic gap, I stated that many agree that the academic gap is a literacy gap. As a result, many states and agencies have placed significant emphasis on literacy, focusing particularly on reading proficiency by 3rd grade. Why literacy and why this age? Well, the Anne E. Casey Foundation says 3rd grade reading has big implications, so let’s unpack that. 

In 2010 the Anne E. Casey Foundation published a report titled, Early Warning! Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters. In this report they explain a couple key points.

  • Key Point #1: From K-3rd grade, students are learning to read. From 4th grade on, students are reading to learn. If students do not know how to read by the end of 3rd grade, the texts they will need to read in order to access and learn the content in 4th will be incomprehensible. This means it is critical for students to be on grade level by the end of 3rd grade.
  • Key Point #2: Students who are behind in 3rd grade remain behind. This leads to a loss of “interest and motivation in middle school, often triggered by retention in grade and the struggle to keep up academically.” We can predict a student’s likelihood of graduating from high school based on their 3rd grade reading proficiency. This means it is critical for students to be on grade level by the end of 3rd grade.
  • The report goes on to state, “The bottom line is that if we don’t get dramatically more children on track as proficient readers, the United States will lose a growing and essential proportion of its human capital to poverty, and the price will be paid not only by individual children and families, but by the entire country.”

For those of us that teach K-3, the message is clear: students must be on grade level by the end of 3rd grade. To make this happen, we need to place additional emphasis on shoring up our teacher’s literacy instruction and regular progress monitoring.


For those of us that teach 4th-12th grade, the message is also clear: students must catch up if they are behind and must stay on track if they are on track. To make this happen, we need to place additional emphasis on intervention and regular progress monitoring. It is important to acknowledge that, regardless of our assigned content, we must all be literacy teachers. As a math teacher, I knew that if I didn’t also teach literacy skills, word problems would be meaningless to my students. What a mission to accomplish! 

In the past few years, these facts have definitely sparked conversation and legislation at the state level. According to McGraw-Hill Education, this legislation, most commonly known as the Third Grade Reading Guarantee, has three components:

  1. Using assessments to identify reading deficiencies
  2. Providing intervention for students not yet on grade level in grades K-3
  3. Retaining students not on grade level by the end of grade 3

In the June 2018 edition of LegisBrief, released by the National Conference of State Legislatures, there are 18 states and the District of Columbia that currently require retention for students not reading proficiently by the end of grade 3. 10 additional states allow retention, but do not require it. Some exceptions to the retention policy do exist (i.e., students who are English Language Learners with less than 3 years of English instruction, students with disabilities, previous retention, etc.).

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McGraw-Hill Education created a guide for educators on how to best translate this policy into action-steps for their classrooms. The strategies, covered in-depth in their guide are:

  • K-3 ELA Program
  • Data and Progress Monitoring
  • System of Instructional Supports

They’ve also released a free webinar: How to Achieve 3rd Grade Reading Proficiency.

The truth is, we cannot achieve 3rd grade reading proficiency without involving the students throughout the process. However, we also cannot achieve reading proficiency by simply telling all of these facts to our students. Tell an 8 year old, “If you aren’t on track by the end of this year, you will remain off track forever!” You will see one of two reactions: stress that prevents progress, confusion and apathy that has a limited or negative impact on progress. To improve literacy we must do both. We must know the data and use various strategies to teach students how to read, but we must also cultivate a culture of reading in our classrooms. For more info on the latter, check out my recent post here.

meghan thompsonMeghan Thompson joined Teach For America in 2008 and began her career in education as a 9th-12th Special Education Teacher in Charlotte, NC. In 2010, she was a member of the founding team at Henderson Collegiate (a school that has ranked in the top 3.5% of all NC public schools for the past 4 years). In 2014, she was a member of the founding team at Democracy Prep Baton Rouge and throughout her time at DPBR served as a middle school ELA teacher, middle school math teacher and the Middle School Campus Director.

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