Promoting early learning, early literacy and early school success is emerging as a likely target for philanthropic investment. Each is associated with and measured by the same key indicator — grade-level reading proficiency by the end of third grade.

Over the last several years, third-grade reading has garnered bipartisan gubernatorial support in red, blue and purple states alike. Two dozen states have enacted laws making schools and school districts accountable for its attainment. Active local “campaigns” to promote grade-level reading have emerged in rural communities as well as metropolitan areas. And the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading reports that more than 360 of these communities have put a “stake in the ground” around improving third-grade reading proficiency and joined its network of “places with plans.”

By the Numbers: The Impact of Grade-Level Reading Proficiency

This embrace of third-grade reading proficiency finds strong support in the research. As with early math, reading proficiency is highly correlated with future school success and high school graduation. This is especially true for children from low-income families. When these children miss the reading milestone — and 78 percent of them currently do — they are 13 times less likely to graduate from high school than children who are more affluent and proficient readers. Living in a high-poverty neighborhood increases the impact of family poverty and poor reading skills; more than one-third of these children (35 percent) fail to finish high school.

These early disparities stalk philanthropic investments in middle and high school. Students who are not reading proficiently by the end of third grade are more likely to experience the attendance, behavioral and course-completion challenges that predict being retained in the later grades, dropping out or failing to graduate on time1.

Researchers have estimated that 35 percent of academically low-performing children become delinquent, compared with only about 20 percent of academically high-performing children2, and youth with low academic achievement are three times more likely to join gangs3. Studies in juvenile justice settings have shown that many incarcerated youth lack literacy skills; among incarcerated adults, 14 percent have only rudimentary literacy, and in some states as many as 60 percent of inmates cannot read at a third-grade level.

The average dropout can expect to earn $10,386 less annually than the typical high school graduate and will face an unemployment rate 50 percent higher than for high school graduates. Not surprisingly, dropouts are more than twice as likely as college graduates to live in poverty. For young women who become mothers, having a low level of education is associated with impacts on their children’s language, cognitive, academic and behavioral development4.

Even the most cursory scan of fourth-grade textbooks and tests supports the truism that “children learn to read and then read to learn.” From fourth grade forward, there is the near-universal expectation that students will become agents of their own learning by engaging with the text, understanding the content and articulating reasoned responses to prompts and questions. Unsurprisingly, for students with a weak grasp of the first four elements of literacy — phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency and vocabulary — the fifth, comprehension, is a bridge too far.

The most recent data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) underscore that broad support for grade-level reading proficiency as a milestone and accountability measure has yet to yield equally broad population-level change. Although more low-income fourth-graders demonstrated reading proficiency on the NAEP in 2017 than in 2009, the income-based proficiency gap remains stubbornly large and, in fact, has grown. Nationally, only 22 percent of public-school test takers who are eligible for free/reduced-price lunch — a measure of family poverty — demonstrated reading proficiency in 2017, compared with 52 percent of non-eligible students.

Bright Spots in Grade-Level Reading

Even so, there is considerable room for optimism. In 2017, for the first time in at least a decade, the proportion of a state’s low-income, reading-proficient fourth-graders reached 30 percent. It happened in three states with statewide reading campaigns: Florida, Massachusetts and West Virginia. More broadly, almost one-third of states (18) have grown their proportion of low-income proficient readers by 5 percentage points or more since 2009.

How to Help

Of course, a proficiency rate that peaks at 30 percent is still far too low. So we also see room to continue and accelerate success for each of three major approaches seeking additional philanthropic support:

  • Helping parents and caregivers, child care providers and early educators understand their respective roles in promoting early literacy and equipping them with tools to recognize and seize “teachable moments.”
  • Supporting more, better and targeted professional development for classroom teachers whose pre-service training failed to prepare them adequately to master the skills needed to teach reading.
  • Harnessing the teaching power of existing and emerging media and technology to reach and teach both the children themselves and the adults in their lives.

The hopeful research and the plethora of “bright spots” where these strategies are succeeding make a compelling case for continued and increased investment and support for early learning, early literacy and early school success.


Original contribution by Ralph Smith, Managing Director of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading

  1. See:
    • Miles, S., and Stipek, D. (2006). "Contemporaneous and Longitudinal Associations Between Social Behavior and Literacy Achievement in a Sample of Low-Income Elementary School Children.” Child
    Development 77(1), 103-117;
    • Hinshaw, S. P. (1992). Academic underachievement, attention deficits, and aggression: Comorbidity and implications for intervention. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 60, 893–903;
    • Maguin, E., Loeber, R., & LeMahieu, P. G. (1993). Does the relationship between poor reading and delinquency hold for males of different ages and ethnic groups? Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 1(2), 88–100.
  2. Maguin, E., & Loeber, R. (1996). Academic performance and delinquency. In Michael Tonry (Ed.), Crime and justice: A review of research (Vol. 20). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  3. Hill, K.G., Howell, J.C., Hawkins, J.D. & Battin, S.R. (1999). Childhood risk factors for adolescent gang membership: Results from the Seattle Social Development Project. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 36(3), 300-322;
    Hill, K.G., Lui, C., & Hawkins, J.D. (2001). Early precursors of gang membership: A study of Seattle youth. OJJDP
    Juvenile Justice Bulletin, December.
  4. See:
    • Karsh I, Jungeblut A, Jenkins L, Kolstad A. Adult Literacy in America: a First Look at the Result of the National Adult Literacy Survey. National Center for Education Statistics, US Department of Education; Washington, DC: 2006;
    • Zill N, Public Health Rep. 1996 Jan-Feb; 111(1):34-43;
    • Attitudes about shared reading among at-risk mothers of newborn babies. Berkule SB, Dreyer BP, Huberman HS, Fierman AH, Mendelsohn AL, Ambul Pediatr. 2007 Jan-Feb; 7(1):45-50;
    • Maternal education and measures of early speech and language. Dollaghan CA, Campbell TF, Paradise JL,Feldman HM, Janosky JE, Pitcairn DN, Kurs-Lasky M, J Speech Lang Hear Res. 1999 Dec; 42(6):1432-43;
    • The role of home literacy practices in preschool children's language and emergent literacy skills, Roberts J, Jurgens J, Burchinal M. J Speech Lang Hear Res. 2005 Apr; 48(2):345-59;
    • DeBaryshe BD. Maternal belief systems: linchpin in the home reading process. J Appl Dev Psychol.
    • Aram D, Levin I. Mother-child joint writing in low SES: sociocultural factors, maternal mediation and emergent literacy. Cogn Dev. 2001;16(3):831–852;
    • Mother-child bookreading in low-income families: correlates and outcomes during the first three years of life. Raikes H, Pan BA, Luze G, Tamis-LeMonda CS, Brooks-Gunn J, Constantine J, Tarullo LB, Raikes HA, Rodriguez ET, Child Dev. 2006 Jul-Aug; 77(4):924-53;
    • Maternal education and measures of early speech and language. Dollaghan CA, Campbell TF, Paradise JL, Feldman HM, Janosky JE, Pitcairn DN, Kurs-Lasky M, J Speech Lang Hear Res. 1999 Dec; 42(6):1432-43.