Educational research is unequivocal that proficiency in reading by the end of third grade enables students to shift from learning to read to reading to learn, and to master the more complex subject matter they encounter beginning in the fourth grade. Students who fail to reach this critical milestone are a significantly greater risk of dropping out of school and failing to earn a high school diploma.
Yet, according to research by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and national and state reading assessment data, two-thirds of U.S. fourth graders are not proficient readers. This disturbing statistic is made even worse by the fact that more than four out of every five low-income students miss this critical milestone.
In Worcester’s public schools, where fewer than half of third-graders read at grade level according to statewide testing and where 74% of students are from low-income families, the need for extra help with reading and other literacy skills is particularly acute. Research by the Children’s Literacy Foundation indicates that 61% of low income families have no age appropriate books in the household.
With financial support from the Abbvie Foundation, the Worcester Education Collaborative is responding to this crisis with a targeted literacy initiative: Reading Together. This project gives high quality books to children along with tools for their parents and caregivers to support them as they learn to read. Reading Together operates in four targeted elementary schools and distributes new, high quality, high interest books to children. Each of four books that the children receive over the course of a year is aligned with the grade level curriculum. In addition to reinforcing academic skills and content, the books and related activities support important civic and personal traits such as cooperation, initiative, friendship, respect, and others.
What makes Reading Together different from other book donation and distribution programs is its focus on family literacy. Parents and caregivers are invited to our classroom reading sessions and the literacy activities booklet that accompanies each book helps make reading a family event that is fun for everyone.
Why is it so important for children to read proficiently by third grade? Why is it such a critical benchmark?
From kindergarten to third grade, children are learning to read; from fourth grade on, they are reading to learn. Those children who are not proficient readers will struggle academically and be less likely to catch up—compromising the likelihood of their graduating and in the long term, finding a meaningful career.
Reading Together complements the Worcester Reads literacy campaign, Worcester Public Library’s Everybody Ready to Read program and Libby and Lily, the Worcester Public Library’s bookmobiles, as well as Worcester Public Schools’ district-wide literacy plan. Reading Together also aligns with other efforts WEC facilitates to reduce chronic absenteeism, mitigate summer learning loss, and provide sound early childhood education experiences.
WEC uses evaluation tools from Wellesley College and from Project Innovation at the University of Alabama to measure the impact of Reading Together. Beyond what we are able to measure, however, is what happens when children who do not have easy access to age appropriate books are given copies of their own. The ideas, dreams and goals that books inspire and the worlds they open can’t necessarily be measured, but they can create an indelible, positive, impact on the children who read them.