Skip to content

3rd Grade Reading Level Can Indicate School Success

January 29, 2011

3rd Grade: Critical Point of Transition from Learning to Read to Reading to Learn


Book Marker:

Learn to read, read to learn


Third-grade teacher Bethann Trychon is helping six students in a semicircle around her read “The Brave Little Tailor” one morning at Union Hill School. The students start by reading and defining a list of words from the story, like “squirt,” “trunk” and “weakling.”

Then they “take a picture walk” through the book and make predictions about the plot before reading the book to themselves and out loud to Ms. Trychon. Tajaiah Ward reads a bit about the fallen tree. “Fall,” she says, hesitatingly.

“Good,” her teacher says.

“Fallen,” she corrects herself.

“Awesome,” Mrs. Trychon replies. “Good job. Keep reading, you’re doing a good job.”

The students don’t know it, but there’s a finish line at the end of third grade. That school year marks the transition between learning to read and reading to learn, and if they aren’t proficient readers by the end of June, their odds of scholastic success sink. Some will catch up, but almost 75 percent of those who are not proficient by that time will continue to struggle and be less likely to finish high school.

Too few students meet that benchmark, but advocates such as Strategies for Children hope to change that. Last week, the organization’s Early Education for All campaign announced a bill to establish a Massachusetts Early Reading Council to advise the state. The move comes about seven months after the group released a report on the importance of third-grade reading success.

The most relevant questions might not be how to improve early education but how to fund those improvements. A network of programs exists in Central Massachusetts and statewide, but they do not reach everyone they could.

The need for improvement is clear. In 2010, only 63 percent of Massachusetts third-graders scored proficient or above on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System. In Worcester, only 45 percent did. At Union Hill, only 11 percent did. Those kind of figures tend to light a fire under schools, so at Union Hill, students are in 120-minute literacy blocks whose portions include small group work, independent reading, writing in an reading journal and using a computer program called Fast ForWord that lets students progress at their own rate while showing teachers where students’ strengths and weaknesses are.

Union Hill Principal Marie D. Morse believes test scores will be up this year, and she knows the benefits of addressing the problem early. “Turning around in fifth grade is like turning around an oil tanker. Third grade … it’s very doable work,” she said.

But third grade is simply the last leg of a race that started at birth, and advocates say help for at-risk readers needs to start then, too. Several programs take that approach, such as Reach Out and Read, a Boston-based national organization that has pediatricians give a new, age-appropriate book to children at every well-child visit from 6 months to 5 years old. The group gives out more than 6.4 million books annually nationwide, and in fiscal 2010, pediatricians at UMass Memorial Health Care offices distributed more than 11,000 books, just part of the effort in Central Massachusetts.

“Low literacy has been associated with poor health outcomes,” said Monica E. Lowell, vice president of community relations at UMass Memorial Health Care.

Worcester also has its own local book drive coordinated by School Committee member and former elementary school principal John F. Monfredo and his wife, Anne-Marie Monfredo. They gather thousands of books each year for summer reading for students in preschool through Grade 8.

There is another network of help that also targets reading in the younger ages. The national Parent-Child Home Program sends a reader to visit families of children ages 2-4 at home twice a week for two school years to help teach parents how to read to and play with their children.

“You have to start in the home with parents as your full partners,” said Carol M. Rubin, Massachusetts regional coordinator for the program.

Research supports the program — the majority of children who participated in the program enter and leave kindergarten ahead of their peers — but in Worcester, it only serves 15 families and is only funded for 14. A few years ago, it served 24 families before the state reduced its funding. Reaching even further back, it served 100 families in Worcester, but that was before the city and state lost a significant part of the federal Title 1 grant that paid for it at the time, according to Elizabeth A. Vietze, coordinator of the Worcester Family Partnership who oversees the visiting program in Worcester.

Ms. Vietze doesn’t know how many more families would qualify in Worcester, but she acknowledged that 14 is “not a large chunk of Worcester.” Head Start, for instance, a preschool program that is largely federally funded, serves 700 students in the city, including visiting program graduates. The criteria for the two programs are not identical, but there is overlap.

Statewide, the Parent-Child Home Program serves approximately 800 children in 80 cities and towns and has a waiting list of 750 children, Ms. Rubin said.

The program is “very good,” but it can be expensive, said state Secretary of Education S. Paul Reville, a Worcester resident.

On the other hand, he added, it can be more expensive to try to bring students up to speed later.

“I think we’ve got a lot of good strategies out there,” he said.

There are also a lot of challenges. Children who are preschool age might not go because families can’t afford it, said Margaret Blood, founder and president of Strategies for Children. Day care and preschool teachers’ salaries and training could use a boost. Full-day kindergarten isn’t universally available. “We have a long way to go,” Ms. Blood said.

Early education programs have been favored by everyone from the United Way of Central Massachusetts to Federal Reserve economists. The trick is finding the most cost-effective approaches and funding them. Early literacy programs, however, could be among the beneficiaries of a $4.8 million achievement gap fund the governor is proposing, Mr. Reville said.

He noted that early literacy is a priority of the administration and of a work group he created that has members from the early education, elementary and secondary and higher education boards on it.

In terms of short-term changes, he said parents can expect in the next 12 months to see a greater focus on literacy in the primary grades and in childcare centers and preschools, which have a new quality review system.

“We talk about closing achievement gaps, and what this effort represents is an effort to jump on the achievement gaps even before they show up visibly on our first MCAS tests,” Mr. Reville said. “We’ve got to reorient our strategy to tackle them when they first begin to occur.”


Blogger’s Note:  I have been told by school officials in Texas that the 3rd grade reading TAKS scores determine the number of future Texas prisons beds.  Wouldn’t it be revolutionary to put that money towards teaching these kids to read instead of preparing to incarcerate them?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: