Reading by Third Grade

By Joyce West | 5/26/15 2:19 PM

Many studies show that children who can’t read by the third grade are at a much greater risk for academic failure, and from there, struggles in the job market.

“It’s really an issue of social justice,” said Dewey Hensley, chief academic officer for Jefferson County Public Schools. “We understand what happens to third graders who by the end of third grade aren’t reading on grade level. We know that states sometimes use those numbers to decide how many prison cells they’re going to create.”

Hensley was among the panelists on KET’s “Education Matters” who joined host Bill Goodman to discuss early interventions to help students achieve grade-level reading fluency and comprehension.

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The Annie E. Casey Foundation has published research that found children who cannot read at grade level by the end of third grade are more likely to drop out of school. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the nation’s report card, showed in 2011 that only 34 percent of fourth-graders read at the “proficient” level, according to the foundation.

The repercussions go beyond academics. “These kids lose a sense of belonging,” Hensley said. Students who can’t read well become adults who feel lost in society. “In truth, if kids can’t read by the end of third grade, we had better have responses for them that go beyond academics,” he said.

Brigitte Blom Ramsey of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence said the committee will release a report this fall on education for children from birth to age 8. Quality early childhood education, Ramsey says, makes a huge difference in kindergarten readiness. The Kentucky Department of Education has created a definition of kindergarten readiness for parents available on its website.

Jill Maynard, principal at Southside Elementary School in Pike County, said that without preschool or Head Start learning, “it’s almost like they come in behind before they even begin.” Schools like Southside offer pre-reading activities to young children and their parents in an effort to bridge the gap.

Ramsey says the achievement gaps between income groups show up before kindergarten, based on the Brigance Kindergarten Screen given to all children in Kentucky.

Shawn Justice, principal at Tygart Creek Elementary School in Carter County, said some studies have shown that disadvantaged children enter school with a substantial word deficit compared  to their more advantaged peers. “It’s very important that we encourage families to talk with their children, not just to their children,” she said.

Expectations for students are greater than ever before. “I think parents are surprised at what kids have to know now,” said Maynard of Southside Elementary.


At Tygart Creek Elementary, a master schedule was created that incorporates an intervention block. Students who have the same needs receive a half-hour of instruction in small groups.

Teachers meet in professional learning communities weekly to review data on student progress. If some students are struggling, they are put into a smaller group of their peers and given intensive instruction. Groupings can change depending on the students’ needs. The goal, Justice said, is that 100 percent of students achieve mastery.

“If you are an elementary teacher, you are a literacy teacher,” Justice said.

In Jefferson County, a partnership between Camp Taylor Elementary School and Bellarmine University trains teachers on literacy strategies. Strategies include whole class choral reading, where the class reads aloud a passage together, and “turn and talk,” where students question each other about what they’ve read to promote oral language growth.

Hensley said the goal is to tailor instruction to the individual child. “We’re really diagnosing individual kids,” he explained. “We’re not just putting them in reading groups.”

Jefferson County’s Third Grade Reading Pledge aims to ensure that every JCPS student is reading on grade level by the end of the third grade. Hensley cautions, however, that the third grade pledge isn’t meant to put pressure on the child and the goal isn’t to retain children if they fail. Educators take responsibility, he said. “We own that,” he said. “…We call that naming and claiming each child.”

Reading with Kids

The National Center for Families Learning, based in Louisville, offers “dialogic reading” workshops to preschool teachers across the state and implements family workshops at libraries to share language and literacy activities with families. “Dialogic reading” simply means actively engaging the child in the story read aloud by asking the child questions, such as “What do you think will happen next?”

Andrea Brown, literacy and learning specialist with the NCFL, said the goal is to establish a routine that engages the child. “We want to have a dialogue around the book where the child has a chance to answer questions. … And through that she’s really able to learn new vocabulary, develop oral language skills, and really interact with the story,” she said.

Ramsey of the Prichard Committee said reading aloud not only builds literacy skills, but strengthens social-emotional bonds. “It’s about that connection with a caring adult,” she said.


amgrad3KET’s education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.