My Literacy Story

Do you remember learning how to read?

I certainly don’t!

What I remember is going to the library to participate in reading groups. During the summers, I made chains of colored construction paper, adding a loop each time I finished a book.

In second grade, my teacher, Mrs. Koogler, got me so excited about Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham that I insisted on being called “Sam” for the remainder of the school year!

On long car trips my parents would let me talk endlessly about the plots of the books in which I was immersed. I frequently saw my parents reading, and because my dad is a minister, I often heard him speak publicly about what he had read and written.

I don’t recall the exact moment the light bulb switched on and I learned to read. But as an adult, I remember experiences that I would now call developmental assets that positively influenced my early literacy.

What are some developmental assets that promote early literacy?

Developmental assets are preventative measures, positive experiences and qualities that young people need when growing up. The presence of these assets can influence early brain development, and act as tools to help you learn to read.

What were my developmental assets?

First–and maybe most important–I was fortunate to be born into a family that was relatively financially stable and healthy. We were by no means wealthy and income was pretty constrained, as a family of five living on a minister’s salary. I remember once asking my mother if we were poor. Her response? We’re rich in love.

I was fortunate that the economic hardships my parents faced did not cause stress for me as a child. Largely, it didn’t register to me that we didn’t have a lot of money. I didn’t go without food, shelter or clothing. My parents had stable employment and did not struggle with divorce or physical or mental health challenges.

My parents’ economic stability and good mental health were assets for me as I learned to read. These assets allowed my brain to develop and my parents to engage with me in meaningful ways.

(For more on why economic stability and health are so connected to positive child outcomes, see United Way’s Steps to Success)

A second developmental asset that shaped my experience as a reader was how much my parents valued reading. They believed that time spent reading was a way to bond with their child.

My mom, a religious and parenting educator, has always told me that she believes the best thing a parent can do for children is to read to them and love them. It’s that simple.

My attendance at preschool was a third developmental asset that influenced my early literacy. When I was 3 years old, my parents were able to send me to preschool, made affordable through the church where they worked. I don’t know what curriculum the school used or whether the program was what we would now call “high quality,” but I do know that I showed up to elementary school with the literacy skills needed for kindergarten.

Over the elementary school years, my love for reading grew. I attended school regularly and liked my teachers. My elementary school had a good library, we participated in the Book It program, and my parents were available to help me with homework at night.

I share my experiences to make the point that I didn’t become a good reader all by myself. Maybe back then I loved reading more than the average kid—and I still do today. Maybe I’ve always loved reading because it has provided me with quiet time to set my imagination free. Also, I was raised to be a reader by my parents and other adults in my life. A whole community of people helped me learn to read and learn to love reading. I recognize this was a privilege and am incredibly grateful.

A Community Approach to Literacy

At United Way, we also take a community approach to literacy, which encompasses more than just reading – it also includes the skills of listening, speaking and writing.

Of particular interest to United Way and our partners is whether students are reading proficiently by the end of third grade.

Why is the end of third grade a critical literacy milestone?

Reading proficiently by third grade is a major milestone for kids, particularly low-income students. The saying goes,”up until third grade children learn to read and after third grade, they read to learn.”

If a student is not reading at grade level in fourth and fifth grades, it becomes a lot harder for that student to do well in other subjects like math and science.

According to school staff I’ve spoken with, few middle schools offer the same level of reading intervention and support as elementary schools. Middle school students who are still struggling to read have fewer options to help them catch up.

By high school, it’s even harder for a student who is not reading well to catch up and graduate on time. Studies have shown that if a child is not reading proficiently by the end of third grade, they are four times less likely to graduate high school on time.

If a young adult leaves high school with low reading levels, it becomes a lot harder to find and keep a job that pays a living wage and raise children who are strong readers.

How do we measure literacy?

In Virginia, we measure literacy skills in many different ways. One way is through standardized assessments such as the Reading and Writing Standards of Learning (SOL) exams, administered in the spring of the third, fifth and eighth grades.

Though the SOLs aren’t a comprehensive measure of student growth, the SOL exams are the only assessments used consistently across Virginia, so we look to them for an understanding of reading proficiency in Greater Richmond & Petersburg.

According to the Virginia Department of Education, in our region, on average, since 2015:

75% of all students passed the 3rd Grade Reading SOL

86% of Asian students passed the 3rd Grade Reading SOL
85% of white, non-Hispanic students passed the 3rd Grade Reading SOL
68% of Latino/Hispanic students passed the 3rd Grade Reading SOL
65% of limited English proficiency students passed the 3rd Grade Reading SOL
62% of African-American students passed the 3rd Grade Reading SOL
62% of low-income students passed the 3rd Grade Reading SOL
42% of students with disabilities passed the 3rd Grade Reading SOL

Trends in Literacy

Recent reports from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as our “Nation’s Report Card”, show that national reading and math proficiency has not changed significantly since 2015. Likewise, in the Greater Richmond region, pass rates on the reading SOL exams have not changed significantly in the past four years.

NAEP reports good news: The achievement gaps in reading and math for African-American and Hispanic students have continued to narrow at the national level. The bad news is the income-based gap is widening.

Our regional data reflect similar trends in literacy. In Greater Richmond & Petersburg, we have gaps in reading proficiency between white students and students of color, and between English Language Learners and their non-ELL peers, as well as between students in high poverty and low poverty schools.

Locally, reading proficiency has been persistently lower over time for economically disadvantaged students. In Richmond and Petersburg, where there is a high concentration of students living in poverty, fewer students pass the Third Grade Reading SOL exam. Henrico County, where poverty has grown in recent years, is just third from the bottom in terms of pass rate.

At national, state and local levels, we see continued gaps in reading performance between students of color and their white and Asian peers, and between lower- and higher-income students. What’s behind these gaps?

Achievement and Opportunity Gaps

We often talk about differences in academic performance among groups of students as “achievement gaps,” but I think of them as opportunity gaps as well.

Some young people miss out on opportunities needed to become strong readers, such as nurturing relationships with caregivers, access to books, early developmental screening and quality preschool.

For kids born into low-income communities, the preventative measures and positive experiences that helped me become a strong reader are sometimes not available. That’s not to say that families who live in very challenging environments don’t possess many other assets, or that their children don’t possess the ability to learn to read and desire to excel in school. That’s why at United Way, we tap into the assets and motivations of families, and invest in opportunities to bridge the gaps between resources they do have and those available in the broader community that we can leverage on their behalf.

At United Way, we invest thousands of dollars in early intervention, preschool, after-school, summer learning and tutoring programs so that families living in challenging situations have opportunities for their children to succeed. As a result, thousands of children and youth in our region are able to attend outstanding programs at little to no cost, and they make meaningful progress toward school readiness or literacy goals.

In the broader community, volunteers, school staff, parents, teachers, social workers, health care providers, youth-program staff and donors like you, make heroic efforts to ensure students have more opportunities to learn in ways that are designed to meet their specific needs.

Providing equal access to public education and equitable access to supports outside of school may narrow the gaps in educational outcomes in our region and nation, but to truly close those gaps for all low-income and minority students in our region, we have to be more targeted, intentional and collaborative in our efforts.

Greater Richmond Campaign for Grade-Level Reading

The Campaign for Grade-level Reading partners with school districts, nonprofits, corporations and other organizations to collectively increase third grade reading proficiency across the Greater Richmond and Petersburg region.

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Author Credit: Rebekah Holbrook