Steps to a Successful School Year: Elementary School

This article is part of a four-part series by United Way’s Frank Cardella, a former high school science teacher, education advocate and president of one of the largest educator union affiliates in Virginia. Click here to read other articles in the series.

Grade-level Reading by Third Grade

Frank Cardella
Director of Community Impact

By now you’ve probably heard all the statistics related to third grade reading and its correlation with graduation rate, unemployment, crime, the welfare state, prison beds, insomnia, depression and even the likelihood of writing a hit song.* So rather than talk about what the numbers are, let’s talk about why they are. The simplest answer is that despite all the multimedia content that children consume, the vast majority of what they learn is taught through reading. Even after their formal school years, these same children as adults will have to teach themselves the rules of their workplace, how to apply for mortgages or car loans and what issues they will be voting on in elections. This material is written for adults with a high school reading level—the average readability score of major newspapers is 10th grade—and if students fall behind early, there is evidence that almost three-quarters of them will never truly catch up.

Brain Development: When “almost done” is really “just getting started.”

Compared to all the negative statistics, here’s one that’s really impressive: A child’s brain has reached 95% of its total mass by eight years old. Put another way, while a child’s body will continue to grow fairly consistently until the end of high school, nearly all brain growth is accomplished by third grade. From this point on, changes in the brain shift from growth to development. While that number may sound incredible considering how many years it will take before a child’s brain reaches an adult state, think of it like baking a cake: It may only take 15 minutes to gather and mix all the ingredients, but twice as long for the cake to rise in the oven.

The distinction between growth and development is an important one that parallels and to some degree explains why it is so critical that students are reading on grade level by that age. Just as children’s brains will undergo changes in how they work over the next 15+ years, the way that students are exposed to material in school will also change as “learning to read” transitions to “reading to learn.” Curriculum will become more text-based, and the ratio of non-fiction or technical sources will increase compared to fiction or story books.

Students who are not reading well by third grade will be at a disadvantage in two ways: Not only will they fall behind their peers academically, but they will have less access to the kinds of mental stimuli that will help their brains develop further.

“But that’s not fair!”

The best chance to close learning gaps that have begun to form occurs at this stage since content volume and pacing begins to accelerate going forward, thus exposing and widening existing gaps. Students are also starting to recognize that classroom groupings are changing, and depending on their level of self-awareness, they may or may not grasp why. Many will feel some sense of dissatisfaction even if they can’t exactly articulate the reason, though this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it can be used to fuel growth as long as the children have support networks ready to redirect their thinking into positive channels for improvement.

Since pattern recognition and categorization are important skills to build at this stage, try to find ways to create incentives for students to make extra efforts in their reading. It is important that students see their efforts resulting in rewards for something they’ve done rather than as bribes to get them to do it, that way they recognize the pattern for themselves and construct their own goals rather than feeling that it has been imposed on them.

Suppose a teacher has concerns about a student who is falling behind in reading. She contacts the child’s parent with a recommendation of five short books for the student to read at home over the next two weeks to get some extra practice. The parent wants the child to see a relationship between reading and something fun. Consider the difference between these two offers:

Offer 1:

Parent: “I want you to spend more time reading, like your teacher asked.”

Child: “Do I have to?”

Parent: “How about this, if you finish three books by the end of the week, then I’ll take you out for ice cream?”

Offer 2:

Parent: “Hey, I noticed you’ve been reading more this week, like your teacher asked.”

Child: “Yeah, I finished two books and I’m mostly through a third.”

Parent: “That’s great! Why don’t we go out for ice cream to celebrate?”

Notice how the second arrangement feels fairer and less like a punishment if the child doesn’t reach a reward goal by some arbitrary deadline. It also allows the child to categorize this experience by what he has done (two-and-a-half books read) rather than by what he has not done (half of a book unread). Closing learning gaps requires buy-in from the student, so make sure to build on positive steps, no matter how small.

As we’ve seen, learning gaps that persist into middle and high school negatively impact cognitive and social growth, making it less likely that students will graduate on time. Therefore, programs that address learning deficits early in the process are not only important, but they represent a very high return on investment, providing long-term benefits to both the individual and to society. Unfortunately, the traditional school calendar used by most districts in the region only exacerbates the problem by leaving students in a “learning desert” over the summer; keep in mind there is a difference between going on a “vacation” which could be filled with experiential learning opportunities versus just being out of school for three months with little or no academic stimulation. As with other aspects of measuring student achievement, family income levels affect which students actually can go on vacations and which students are just sitting at home in an environment that may not be equipped with many learning resources. For students who are already behind grade-level in reading, the additional summer learning loss puts them even father behind their peers when the new school year arrives.

Peter Paul Development Center is a United Way partner that helps combat summer learning loss with its Summer Promise program. By providing educational and cultural growth activities designed to stimulate young minds, this program helps students stay on track for the coming school year while giving struggling students a chance to catch up instead of falling farther behind. Throughout the rest of the year, PPDC runs an After School Learning Immersion Program to support students with academic instruction, reading assistance, enrichment experiences, mentoring, and tutoring so that critical literacy skills are developed and maintained.

The complementary programs have had great success: 94% of students achieved growth in either math or reading skills, and 99% received grade promotion at the end of the academic year (from their regular day school). As an added benefit, PPDC utilizes students participating in their high school programs as junior counselors for those in younger grades, providing opportunities for older youth to develop leadership skills while allowing for more individualized support for struggling young readers. Since it has been shown that the best way to internalize something you’ve learned is to teach it to someone else, by working to close the 3rd Grade reading gap in this way, they are simultaneously increasing the likelihood that both groups of students will graduate from high school on time.

Equal is not the same as Equitable.

So how do we do it? How do we make sure that every student acquires those critical reading skills by the end of their 3rd Grade year, especially when they start school with different baselines, home-life support systems, and the schools themselves have different levels of resource allocation? How do we give them an equal chance to succeed? The answer is that we don’t; instead we give them an equitable chance to succeed.

Take three students in the same 2nd Grade classroom: Carla, Freddy and Samantha. After individualized assessments, they are discovered to be reading on 1st, 2nd and 4th grade levels, respectively, meaning that Carla already has a one-year learning gap, Freddy is reading right where he is supposed to be, while Samantha is reading two years ahead (not to mention a year ahead of the critical benchmark that all of the students are working toward). If we were to treat them equally, one of three scenarios would develop:

  • Teaching all of the students at Carla’s level would allow her to catch up, but would deny Freddy and Samantha opportunities to grow (and in Sam’s case, could create risks of poor behavior or absenteeism due to boredom).
  • Teaching all of the students at Freddy’s level would keep him on track, but might cause Carla to fall farther behind, while denying Samantha the opportunity to grow.
  • Teaching all of the students at Samantha’s level would allow her to excel, but would create unnecessary challenge for Freddy, possibly making him feel that he isn’t good at reading when in fact he is reading at exactly the level he should be. Meanwhile Carla is likely to see herself as a failure and school as hopeless (thus increasing the likelihood that she will act out or begin to “skip” school whenever she can get away with it).

Parity leads to opportunity, but if treating the students equally isn’t the way to get there, then what does treating them equitably look like? To some degree that depends on the support systems that the school district has in place, but a quick view would include breaking up reading instruction into separate objectives. For example, during one period having different books for each student rather than one book that everyone has to read, and during another period having a book that the teacher reads with the students so they have a model to follow. Since the main objective at this point is to build reading skill, having a range of books that challenge students to improve from their current level will keep them all engaged as they are being pushed to go beyond the minimum standards. Another reason not to “teach to the bottom” is that manageable frustration leads to resilience. It’s okay for emerging readers to struggle a bit, just make sure they know they have support when they need it. While reading problems are difficult to fix, the good news is that they are easy to prevent, especially at the earliest Steps to Success.

Keep reading this series: 
Frank Cardella is the Director of Community Impact for United Way of Greater Richmond & Petersburg. Prior to joining United Way, Frank served the public good for 20 years as a high school science teacher, education advocate and president of one of the largest educator union affiliates in Virginia.

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