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  • Writer's pictureJordan Raglow

Foundational Literacy Skills Before Third Grade

Crawling, walking, talking. For most of us, those things all came naturally and without explicit instruction. We watched others doing it, tested things out on our own, had our parents help hold us up or pick us up when we fell. But learning to read is not the same way. We are not naturally inclined to decode and understand written language the way that we are with spoken language – it requires explicit instruction. [1]

The way in which kids are taught to read has changed a lot over the years. In Colonial America, the focus was on repetition without necessarily understanding the text. Could the student accurately sound out the word? If not, harsh discipline was administered. Thankfully, we have moved beyond those rudimentary measures. Since the 1970’s, educators have been working to find the most effective way in which to teach literacy skills to our students. And we’ve known since then, that phonics is a key component of that effective instruction. [2] “Nevertheless, the education field shifted to other curriculums in recent years, which has been linked to a crisis in early literacy, with barely a third of students nationwide mastering reading by fourth grade.” [4]

So, what do we do about it? While some schools use one or a combination of different methods, many are moving towards the science of reading. “The science of reading is the converging evidence of what matters and what works in literacy instruction, organized around models that describe how and why.” [3]

Currently, reading instruction is broken down into five parts: [3]

· Phonological awareness – Recognizing that words are composed of individual sounds (i.e. cat = c/a/t or short = sh/or/t).

· Phonics and word recognition – Knowing and using individual letter sounds as well as the sounds combinations of letters make.

· Fluency – Reading with cadence and automatic word recognition, with comprehension as the primary focus.

· Vocabulary and oral language comprehension – Helping students to expand their academic vocabulary through explicit instruction during read alouds and more.

· Text comprehension – Reading for deep and rich comprehension even before students can read a full text independently (i.e. when they are being read to).

For parents, the most important takeaway here is that literacy skills are built on specific components that must be explicitly taught and nurtured through well-designed instruction. The good news is that many schools are moving towards this research-based approach. In fact, “Nineteen states have passed legislation requiring this sort of evidence-based reading instruction, including Tennessee, Alabama and North Carolina, with many more districts, like Richmond, using the extra federal dollars to overhaul their reading curriculum and train teachers.” [4] The states that have adopted this approach are already seeing success in their reading scores.

So why does this matter? Kids all eventually learn to walk and talk. Isn’t reading the same way? If they are a little bit behind, won’t they catch up eventually? The unfortunate reality is no. Not all kids will catch up eventually if they fall behind in their reading skills. In fact, “If a child is unable to read proficiently by the end of third grade, there is an 88% chance they will always be a struggling reader.” [5]

This is particularly important because there is an academic shift in third grade. This is the year that schools make the switch from learning to read to reading to learn. From kindergarten to second grade students are (hopefully) receiving the explicit instruction mentioned above on how to read words and comprehend them. But in third grade, they start to use those skills to learn other subjects such as science, social studies, and even math. A 2016 study published in the Journal of Education and Practice found that, “Reading comprehension has found as one of the biggest factors on math or science achievement.“[6]

The bottom line for parents and educators alike, is that strong early literacy instruction is not something to be taken lightly. Schools and educators need to ensure that they are providing their students with high-quality, research-based instruction. Parents can help by reading to and with their children early and often.


[6] The Effect of Reading Comprehension on the Performance in Science and Mathematics Journal of Education Practice, Vol.7, No.16, 2016


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