Education Opinion

Strategies to Ensure Reading Proficiency by 3rd Grade

By Matthew Lynch — July 31, 2015 8 min read
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How can educators have students reading well by this important age threshold?

By Todd Brekhus

Through years of reading research, the education community has a solid understanding of early literacy and the science behind learning to read. Where we collectively lack insight is how to best transition students to reading independently and reading to learn.

It’s a sobering statistic: only 34 percent of all fourth grade students read proficiently. Third grade is the turning point in which students who don’t reach proficiency by the end of that year are in danger of never catching up to their peers. According to research from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, third grade reading achievement is the most important predictor of high school graduation and career success. Yet as a country we’ve continually failed to ensure all students reach grade-level reading.

To overcome this persistent problem and meet this critical milestone for all our students, particularly those from low-income families, requires a new approach. Recent efforts by many states and school districts are showing incredible promise for accelerating student reading achievement among learners of all abilities. Their innovative models focus on community-wide collaborations and leverage the power of technology to provide personalized learning on a broad scale in an effective and economical way.

After four years of working with schools and 6 million students participating in a personalized reading environment through myON, my company and the educators we’ve partnered with have learned several strategies that are impacting student engagement. State and community reading initiatives underway in Indiana, Georgia, California, Florida, Colorado, Missouri and Illinois indicate that programs emphasizing three key components: equitable access, personalization, and comprehensive literacy strategies can significantly improve proficiency levels in early elementary grades to set students on the path toward graduation with skills needed for success in college and careers.

Access, Access, Access

A 20-year study from the University of Nevada, Reno showed that the number of books in a child’s home was a greater predictor of a high level achievement than the parents’ level of education. The technologies available today enable students to have greater access to high-quality books at a lower cost and at anytime, anywhere.

When students have access to an on-demand library of digital books, their reading habits change, similar to the way Amazon has changed consumer shopping habits. Students read more books, spend more time reading, and enjoy reading more. A broad variety of books are just a click away. While physical libraries are still a place for learning with books, collaboration, maker spaces and community-building activities, the idea that all the knowledge and books must be secured in the building simply no longer holds true.

To ensure all students have equitable access, San Francisco Unified School District has implemented a plan for meaningful use of tablets and digital books that incorporates at-home use and training for parents. The Early Literacy Project is the first major step in its Vision 2025 initiative that brings together key community organizations to ensure students thrive and are successful in school and beyond. iPads loaded with reading and writing apps were given to first graders at four of the district’s underserved elementary schools, and provides both training and an iPad to their parents to help extend literacy learning beyond the classroom. Several community partners--such as YMCAs and the Mission Economic Development Agency--help facilitate the training.

Get Georgia Reading, an unprecedented, population-focused collaboration of more than 100 public and private partners supporting the shared expectation of putting all children on the path to third-grade reading proficiency by 2020, uses a similar approach. For the past two summers, the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH), a partner in the Get Georgia Reading program, has provided underprivileged children and all learners with free access to an 8,000-book digital library during the summer. Last year, students read more than 3,000 books and become more exited to read. Students’ reading jumped to more than 10 times that amount in first few weeks of this summer.

Personalization Matters

While set reading lists expose children to great books and serves as a guidepost, it may not be the best approach anymore to instill a love of reading. Research shows that when students are given the opportunity to choose what they read based on their interests and preferences, they become more motivated to read. Programs that recommend books and guide students in making good choices in selecting texts based on their interests and ability levels builds confident, avid readers.

Komensky Elementary School in Berwyn School District 100, one of the poorest in Illinois with a large minority population, provided students with access to digital books and tablets at school and at home. With a vast library of literature open to students with the chance to choose books tailored to them, they became hooked on reading. School leaders and teachers discovered students were reading at home and on days when school was not in session. The school seized the opportunity to extend this habit by offering virtual summer school so students could continue reading online and minimize summer learning loss. Since the start of the program, students have opened more than a million books and read for more 120,000 hours. Three years ago, 30-40 percent of students were reading at grade level and today it’s up to 60-85 percent.

When reading is self-directed, students become experts in their topic of choice. And, learners with different abilities, from the lowest-performing to the most gifted student, can excel and learn together as they can both access content, geared toward their reading level, on the same topic.

In Lakeville, Minnesota, teachers hosted an “expert hour” using a personalized, digital reading platform. Students were asked to learn about a topic they were interested in, such as Jackie Robinson or DNA, by reading digital texts. They were given guiding questions to help them explore the topic on their own and then presented on the topic to their classmates. Lisa Schneider from video...

Giving students a wealth of books and texts at their fingertips and tailoring recommended reading lists to individual’s skills and passions, opens up new doors for learners and stretches their horizons. Just as students explore different scenarios and pathways in digital games, personalized reading enables students to pursue various journeys and delight in amassing books and knowledge.

The Comprehensive Literacy Approach

The English-Language Arts landscape is shifting to encompass reading, writing, thinking and listening, as well as vocabulary instruction seamlessly rather in instructional silos. Technology enables educators to easily connect all these literacy components and foster collaboration. A closer connection between reading and writing now exists.

Students can now own every page of every book they read, which is a powerful change. By highlighting and annotating while they read digital texts, students are not only consuming content they are creating and discovering along the way. In addition, with an open library of digital books, modeling writing from many authors becomes easier for students and teachers. Students become enthusiastic readers, deeper thinkers and experts at content.

In the heart of every teacher is the desire to have their classrooms be spaces for creating and joyful learning, not places of just doing and reciting. New technologies and dynamic approaches to literacy instruction empower educators to foster students’ critical thinking and creativity. Surrounded by high-quality books and the tools to interact and create with that content, students have breakthrough moments in learning.

For a long time, technology was a tool for remediation, which left out a large swath of students. Now, it can serve as catalyst for discovery and acceleration of learning for learners of all abilities and backgrounds.

Hillsborough County Public Schools (HCPS) in Tampa, Florida, used an integrated approach to literacy and digital books and has reaped the benefits, not only improving student engagement in reading but also raising test scores dramatically. The community-wide literacy program began in February 2012 to raise literacy in Hillsborough by providing full access to apersonalized literacy environment for every child in the county from birth to eighth grade. Partners included HCPS, The Children’s Board of Hillsborough County, Hillsborough County Public Library Cooperative, United Way Suncoast, BOCC Head Start, Tampa Housing Authority and the Early Learning Coalition. According to the Trial Urban District Asssessment study of the lastest NAEP scores in the largest districts in the nation, HCPS now ranks first in fourth and eight grade reading results.

Leading school districts and educators are forging new paths through partnerships and innovation to ensure students are proficient readers by the end of third grade and have the skills and support they need to graduate. By combining equitable access to books, personalized reading experiences, and approaching literacy comprehensively, students will be provided unlimited opportunities to learn and be prepared to be tomorrow’s leaders.


Todd Brekhus is president of myON, a business unit of Capstone, which offers a personalized reading environment that matches students’ interests and reading level and tracks their reading growth. Prior to joining Capstone, Brekhus held executive positions in a range of businesses from startups to large education companies, and spent eight years in education as a teacher, department chair, and technology director.

The opinions expressed in Education Futures: Emerging Trends in K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.