CHAPEL HILL (Sept. 3, 2020) – The ability to read by third grade is viewed as critical to college readiness. Through third grade, students learn to read, the saying goes, and after third grade they read to learn.
So in a Zoom webinar hosted by Higher Ed Works, we asked our panelists why third-grade reading is important. [View the entire webinar here.]
If a child hasn’t mastered reading skills by third grade, said Dr. Sandra Soliday Hong, a research scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill, “Their ability to acquire knowledge through reading is impaired and will make it difficult for them to progress through their educational trajectory.”
But Dr. Mary Bratsch-Hines, also a research scientist at Frank Porter Graham, emphasized that we shouldn’t focus solely on third grade. The reading skills a child develops in kindergarten and first grade influence that child’s proficiency in 10th grade and their college readiness, she said.
“We really need to realize that there are so many years before third grade where learning to read has to happen,” she said.
Dr. Anthony Graham, Provost at Winston-Salem State University, said his own research found that Black boys who struggled with reading in middle school were more likely to be suspended.
Impact of Pre-K
Researchers have found that benefits to a student of North Carolina’s Pre-K program persist at least through eighth grade, Soliday Hong noted.
And Bratsch-Hines again noted that reading skills are cumulative. “They begin at birth,” she said. “Children need to learn how to connect what a sound of a letter is with what a letter looks like.”
After decades of research on the benefits of high-quality early-childhood care, she said, “The message is clear that those investments are key.”
Impact on college readiness
Soliday Hong said studies have found that a student’s grade-point average in high school depends in part on the ability to read effectively – and even math skills are influenced by a student’s ability to read.
Graham pointed out that a student can get “stuck” in a phase of learning to read – for life.
“It’s not only about college readiness,” he said. “It’s about life.”
Graham noted that university teacher-preparation programs tend to limit instruction on learning to read to early-childhood teachers – and as a result, many middle- and high-school teachers aren’t equipped to help students with reading difficulties.
“It can’t just be limited to early-childhood teachers,” he said. “We have to think about the K-12 continuum.”
Bratsch-Hines said that beyond concrete skills, if an early-childhood teacher builds a relationship with a student, “The student feels incredibly empowered in the classroom, and that spills over beyond reading instruction … into becoming a participant in the classroom dynamic.”
Graham added that especially for students of color, diversity among teachers is important. “It’s good for our students to see themselves in the people who are teaching them,” he said.
Persistent gaps for some students
Graham noted that achievement gaps for students of color, and especially for Black and Hispanic boys, have persisted since the 1980s.
“Are we using a consistent approach?” he asked, noting that teaching methods can vary even between classrooms in the same school.
There is no neurological difference between races at birth, said Soliday Hong, so the gaps are related to systemic access to resources and tests that are too often biased toward white middle-class life.
Bratsch-Hines noted that the gaps are narrowing, but only slightly. At the current rate, she said, demographers estimate it will take 60 to 100 years to completely close them.
So support in the earliest years is critical. ???“We need to be there for these families when these children are still in the womb,” she said.
Mississippi sets an example
Unlikely as it might seem, Mississippi is a success story when it comes to gains in reading.
The state raised the percentage of fourth-graders who are proficient in reading from 26% in 2013 to 40% in 2019, Graham said, and it came about through adoption of a common, agreed-upon approach based on the science of reading – one North Carolina hopes to embrace.
Bratsch-Hines said the statewide effort focused both on education for aspiring teachers and vital coaching for teachers who were already in the classroom.
Soliday Hong agreed that the shared statewide approach was critical. “I think that kind of cohesive approach is really important and could benefit North Carolina as well,” she said.