Improving third-grade reading requires schools and parents

Christine McCall | 7/13/2010, 8:05 p.m.

Massachusetts has often appeared at the top of the list for its reading scores on state and national tests.

But a report released last month revealed a stunning number — 43 percent, almost half, of third-graders in the state who took the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) in 2009, are not proficient readers and of that 43 percent, two-thirds are from low-income backgrounds.

Strategies For Children, Inc. commissioned the report, “Turning the Page: Refocusing Massachusetts for Reading Success,” authored by Nonie K. Lesaux, Marie and Max Kargman Associate Professor in Human Development at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The report provides detailed recommendations on how third-grade reading measures can be improved statewide.

“Every year, kids are falling a little more behind,” Lesaux said. She added that it is a systemic issue and as a society “we’ve thought about reading as mechanical.”

Being able to read is much more than just the mere identification of words.

“It means accessing, evaluating, and synthesizing information, and it therefore creates a foundation for learning across all academic domains, including math, science, and social studies,” the report states. “It is inextricably linked to overall academic success.”

If children are not reading grade level by the end of third grade, statistically the odds are against them, Lesaux said, especially when it comes to graduating high school.

The report explains that reading struggles early on can also be strongly associated with behavioral problems, depression and dysfunctional peer interactions and relationships. Other negative effects include low self-esteem, incarceration, teen pregnancy, low productivity and welfare dependence.

Chad d’Entremont, research and policy director for Strategies for Children, Inc. said, “Reading is a foundational skill.”

Becoming a skilled reader is a lifelong process and one that begins as early as six months. A skilled reader must possess “strong language skills, well-developed knowledge about the critical world, and critical thinking skills,” according to the report.

To help monitor a child’s reading progress, the report recommends, “Programs and providers, including medical professionals, serving babies, preschoolers and school-age children should assess language and reading development, and should regularly evaluate the quality and impact of their services.”

MCAS is taken for the first time in third-grade and is the first statewide measure of a student’s reading ability. As stated in the report, “a child’s vocabulary at age 4 is predictive of grade 3 reading comprehension.”

The problem arises when it is not identified until grade 3 that the child is struggling with reading and comprehension, and at that point, so much valuable time has already been wasted.

To lessen that wasted time, Lesaux and her team of researchers also recommend bringing “language-rich, rigorous and engaging reading curricula into early education and care settings, as well as PK-3 classrooms.”

“At its core, this is really about [providing] language rich [settings] for the 43 percent who are struggling,” Lesaux aid.

Just because school is out and summer is in full swing for children in the Bay State does not mean the work stops. Another recommendation is to “Expand and strengthen partnerships with families to focus on improving children’s language and reading.”