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Learning to Read, Reading to Learn: At a Glance



The research is clear: if children cannot read proficiently by the end of third grade, they face daunting hurdles to success in school and beyond. Third grade marks a pivot point in reading. In fourth grade, students begin encountering a wider variety of texts. By then, able readers have learned to extract and analyze new information and expand their vocabularies by reading.

But struggling readers rarely catch up with their peers academically and are four times more likely to drop out of high school, lowering their earning power as adults and possibly costing society in welfare and other supports (Hernandez, 2011). 


And those struggling students are disproportionately poor students and students of color. An analysis of reading scores on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP, commonly known as the Nation’s Report Card) found that the score gap between children from higher- and lower-income families was 29 points. For children of color, the gap—while reduced by a single point since the 2009 test—was still 25 points (Feister, 2013)

Faced with these unequal outcomes, many states are working to improve third-grade reading through assessments to pinpoint problems, interventions for struggling readers, and possible retention of third-graders who do not meet grade-level markers (Workman, 2014). 

At the local level, some 350 school districts—representing 16 percent of all children in U.S. public schools—have committed to actions designed to help more children from low-income families read at grade level by the end of third grade (Feister, 2013).



What the research says about early literacy

Reading is the Open Sesame for acquiring knowledge: learn to read, and you can read to learn just about anything. But learning to read is a complex matter that begins long before a child starts school. In fact, researchers now know that the foundation for reading lies in the oral language children are exposed to and develop in the first three years of life (Hart & Risley, 1995).

Parents’ level of education can make a difference in a child’s readiness for school, as can other factors, such as family makeup and income, access to a high-quality pre-kindergarten program and teacher quality. 

The Parent Factor: Both the quality and the quantity of verbal interaction between parent and child are major factors in developing literacy skills and reading readiness. Hart and Risley observed a number of what they called “quality features” in this regard (Mabry, 1997).  Diverse vocabulary and sentence formation are among them, as are initiating conversation, prompting response, and listening actively to the child. In addition, children whose parents were more highly educated earned higher NAEP reading scores in 2009, but fewer minority students had college-educated parents. 





The Income Factor: Hart and Risley also found striking differences in the verbal abilities of children from affluent families compared to low-income families. Poor children, they found, heard as few as 3 million words in their first three years of life, compared to 11 million words for children in wealthier families—a verbal gap that predicted a gap in academic achievement by the time children reach the age of 9 or 10. Again, the NAEP data reveal proficiency gaps, in this case between students from moderate and high-income homes and those from low-income homes, as measured by eligibility for free and reduced-price lunch.





The Community Factor: Students in preschool and the early elementary grades learn anywhere and anytime, not just at home and in school. Libraries, recreational facilities, museums, and other community-based organizations share with families and schools some of the responsibility for children’s learning and development. The Harvard Family Research Project has linked student achievement to early learning experiences at home and in the community and to meaningful engagement of families in schools and other community organizations.

The Early Learning Factor: Children who attend pre-kindergarten programs do better in kindergarten. This outcome holds true for children of all racial groups, but the impact is greatest for children of color, children from low-income families, and English language learners. A longitudinal study of the High/Scope Perry Preschool Project, for example, found that, at age 5, virtually half (49 percent) of students who attended pre-k programs went on to read at the basic level or higher by the time they were 14,  compared with only 15 percent of those who did not have the benefit of pre-k (Gayl, 2008). 





The Teacher Factor: What teachers know about reading instruction, how they focus their teaching, and how much time their classes spend on reading can all affect students’ reading skills. Effective practices include a focus on phonics instruction in kindergarten and, in first grade, a focus on phonics and integrated language arts activities—vocabulary, discussion and explaining what is read (Ryan, 2010).  Unfortunately, in their study of trends in professional development, Ruth Chung Wei and her colleagues found a sharp decline in the amount of funding for professional development in reading instruction and an accompanying decline in the intensity of such professional development (Wei, Darling-Hammond & Adamson, 2010). 


What school boards should know

Reviewing this research points up a series of issues school board members should understand. Some factors that affect students’ reading proficiency are outside the school’s realm—family and neighborhood poverty, for example, and parents’ level of education.

But schools and districts can have an impact on other important factors:

Time in school. As important as parent and community support are, if children are not in school, their achievement suffers. One in 10 students in kindergarten and first grade miss nearly a month of school each year, according to a 2014 report from Attendance Works and the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. The more children are chronically absent in pre-k, kindergarten, and first grade, the more they need help with reading by the end of second grade. School interventions can make a real difference, as well as, helping families overcome problems with transportation, health concerns, and other barriers to attendance. 

Time in grade. If children have not established basic reading skills by the end of third grade, it might seem logical to hold them back a year and, in fact, that has been a common, though controversial practice. But Harvard’s Martin West reports that students who are held back a year face lower achievement and worse social-emotional outcomes than similar students who are promoted, and they are more likely to drop out of school.  In the early grades, however, the outcome can change when intensive remediation accompanies retention. Bottom line: retention is no substitute for a comprehensive strategy to reduce the number of struggling readers, and appropriate interventions for retained students should be part of that strategy.

Extended learning opportunities. Young children spend easily two or three times fewer waking hours in school than out of school. Much of their learning takes place in those out-of-school hours—and, over summer vacation, they stand to lose some of what they have learned in school (Alexander, Entwisle & Olson, 2007). Recognizing this lost opportunity, groups like the National Education Association recommend extended learning opportunities such as before- and after-school programs, summer school, Saturday academies, and an extended school year. 

Teacher capacity. In the face of state and district cutbacks in resources allocated for professional development, it is challenging to build teacher capacity. Wei and her colleagues suggest renewed focus on induction and mentoring programs for beginning teachers and opportunities for collaborative work for all teachers (Wei, Darling-Hammond & Adamson, 2010). Also important, of course, is hiring certified teachers who have strong backgrounds in education and training. 

Family and community engagement. There’s broad agreement—and strong research to back it up—that family engagement is linked to student success. Parental beliefs, attitudes, values, and child-rearing practices all play a part in school readiness, according to the Harvard Family Research Project, as does home-school communication. Partnerships that involve community groups and local government agencies—health and social services, for example—can strengthen the result. 

Yes, all this is costly, but economic analyses show real cost-benefits. Giving children a strong early start on literacy provides significant savings to federal, state, and local governments—not only reducing the need for special education, but also increasing the likelihood of healthier lifestyles, lowering the crime rate, and reducing overall social costs (Heckman, 2011). 


Author: Sally Banks Zakariya is a free-lance writer based in Arlington, Virginia, and former editor-in-chief of American School Board Journal and director of publications for the National School Boards Association.

This paper is a collaborative effort between NSBA’s Council of Urban Boards of Education, the Black Council of School Board Members, the National Caucus of American Indian/Alaska Native School Board Members and the Hispanic Council of School Board Members.

Published March 2015
© 2015 Center for Public Education

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