The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading helps with a national crisis

I am currently in Washington, DC attending the kick-off of what is being called “The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading,” a three-day event focused on an issue constantly growing in importance. Its organizers, led by the irrepressible Ralph Smith of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, initially expected to attract between 50 and 70 participants; more than 200 of us signed up, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who will deliver the closing address on Tuesday.

Because we are now editing a piece for PBS NewsHour about what is often called ‘the vocabulary gap’ that develops in the first three years of life, I am especially aware of the need for public action.  We know that about 75 percent of the children who aren’t reading competently and confidently by the end of third grade will never catch up.

No mistake: This is a crisis!

And while a staggering 91% of African American boys are below grade level in reading in third grade, this is not a racial issue/problem.  It’s a national crisis: 83% of ALL low-income children are behind.

That’s right: 83%.

It’s important to point out that the folks who organized this are not expecting schools to do all the heavy lifting. They know that parents and communities must be actively involved.

This admirable effort, generously supported by Target, has set a goal: all children reading at grade level by third grade.  That’s too low a bar, in my view.  Here’s a paragraph from The Influence of Teachers, my new book:

The national goal, all children reading by the end of third grade, is a low floor that I fear may become a ceiling in many schools. Children don’t learn to walk just so they can walk in place; they want to be able to get somewhere more efficiently. So too with reading; children want to learn to read so they can make sense of the world around them. Good teachers capitalize on that intrinsic motivation and teach children the many strategies they need to read with understanding, of which decoding is only a part.

Experts talk about how the first three grades are for ‘learning to read,’ and after that it’s all about ‘reading to learn.’  I think that’s a phony distinction that rolls off the tongue easily, but I refer you to the paragraph above.  Children are practical creatures; they want to read so they can navigate their environment. They read to learn, from the start. On that note, here’s another paragraph from my chapter about reading in The Influence of Teachers:

Children do not need more drill in decoding. Reading specialists often draw a false distinction between decoding and comprehending, and because most tests reward decoding, teachers in the early grades may be tempted to treat it as a goal rather than what it is: a means to an end.

I don’t want to rain on this important parade; what the organizers have done is bring all sorts of activists into one room, for three days of conversation, information-sharing, planning and organizing.  Just getting everyone in the same tent is an accomplishment, and the energy I detect suggests that this is just the beginning.

The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading is to be a three-year effort.  Join in wherever you are, because reading is the foundation of individual growth and of a strong democracy.
More info can be found here:

15 thoughts on “The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading helps with a national crisis

  1. John,

    I know you are no killjoy. You usually have a positive outlook on things. But i gotta tell ya, hearing you say that after 3rd grade kids who aren’t reading confidently/competently NEVER catch up is a huge generalization. Am i wrong? It seems to me that you are painting all kids w/a big brush.

    I know of students who had a horrible time with reading, even past the third grade. And guess what? They did “catch up.” And are doing rather remarkably.

    Maybe i just have to wait until you finish editing the piece.


    • I cite some sources in my book, The Influence of Teachers, for the depressing research that indicates that those who are behind in first grade have a 1-8 chance of catching up. Juel, Griffith and Gough,Journal of Educational Psychology 78-4 (1986) and Juel, Educational Psychology 4 (2008)


  2. John,
    It is indeed a wonderful accomplishment to have all of these activitsts in one room and even more so to have a corporate sponsor. However, I worry how this group is defining/will define “Grade-Level Reading” for 2015. All too often the most prominent contemporary educators forget that 21st reading skills–those needed to decipher their environment–will require multimodal practice (a skill they (we) did not learn in primary school). Today’s children need to learn how to research, read and write (with comprehension) content displayed via multiple forms so that they will be able to operate in the working environments that will exist in 2025 and beyond. Introduction to the tools in which one learns how to think in multiple modes is especially important for low-income children who are less likely to have readily-available resources at home for practice.
    Thanks for reading!


    • Target is all over the meeting as a principal supporter, and perhaps THE principal supporter. I admire its ‘hands off’ approach. The company is a model corporate citizen.


  3. Perhaps “midwestmom” should reread your remarks, Jon. You said about 75% of the children who aren’t reading competently and confidently by the end of third grade will never catch up. That means roughly 25% DO catch up eventually. I do not think your brush was too broad. I have been teaching for 52 years and my observations correlate with the numbers you gave us.

    I am fascinated by what you have shared thus far regarding The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. I hope we will hear more about how all educators “wherever we are” can get involved.


  4. John – I agree with midwestmom. You seem to have uncriticaly drunk the kool-aid on this one. Many kids are not “reading at grade level” by the end of the 3rd grade precisely because of the drilling and decoding drills you mention. In the eyes of a kid, reading = “word work.” And word work is no fun, is not relevant to them, so kids are not motivated to pursue it.

    More fundamentally, I challenge your broad characterization of all kids being intrinsically motivated to learn to read. Aside from the problem I mention above (the means by which reading is taught kills off whatever intrinsic motivation there is), some kids are simply not interested in reading and are not cognitively ready to read until much later. This is why so many parents — like me! — take their kids out of school and homeschool them. We recognize that our kids are late bloomers in some areas. If we kept them in school, they would automatically be branded as “behind” and would be told they “will never catch up.” What ridiculous nonsense!

    If my kids were in school, they would have a self-fulfilling prophecy laid out before them and would likely forever be “behind” in school simply because they were not interested in doing something that their peers were doing at an earlier age. Luckily, we have the financial means to have only one person in our family earn an income. Most parents can’t afford to do this, so their kids are ready to be branded and deemed “learning disabled,” etc. Very sad. Ironically, this is done to “help” these poor kids.


    • I ’rounded up’ and should have written ‘nearly all.’ And some are ready earlier than others. I too deplore the labeling. In my book, The Influence of Teachers, I argue for an end to age segregation in schools, by the way. Makes no sense, given learning spurts, interests, cognitive readiness. Better for kids to lump all K-2 kids (with agreed upon goals for the end of that 3-year period). Lots of teachers, close attention to every child, and shared responsibility among the adults for outcomes. No more passing along a kid you didn’t manage to teach, a flawed system that punishes the kid and blames the adult.


  5. Setting goals is not very difficult…been doing it for years. Remember the National Goals Panel? US will be first in the world in math and science by 2000 was a goal.

    “Reading on target by the end of 3rd grade” is a great goal…as is “Ready for kindergarten.” But accomplishment lies in the interventions not mouthing the goal. We do have pretty good ideas as to what to do…but choose not to do them. The 3rd grade goal must start with literacy in pre-k and likely with pre-natal health care. Low birth weight children have a tough time in the important development years especially when followed by poor nutrition. Brain development is crucial to reading!!!!

    Linking pre-k with k-3 in “Age 3 to Grade 3 Schools” would be an important step…now they are different worlds…but only if sound curriculum and interventions coupled with formative assessment are used. It’s the curriculum, the teaching (parent(s) are the 1st teachers), and the motivation of the learner coupled with the right time that will get that goal met.

    But…up to 3rd grade kids really are learning to read and comprehend…so they can fly. This is key because of how we organize our schools. Reading is a pre-requisite for 4th grade and beyond. Wouldn’t have to be…but we organize our schools that way and of course we could never change that!


  6. This really is a tragedy, but an avoidable one. All these kids can be taught to read, but not with the reductionist approach so popular now. I am working with a program that has great success taking in low-income children and getting them to read at very high levels (92% proficient in 2nd grade in one Title I school). It is all done by putting kids in really rich, exciting environments where they are highly motivated to absorb information and then giving them the tools to do it. They learn as a means to a meaningful end – that’s the only way it works. If a given child is lagging developmentally, that’s accounted for without making them feel deficient. Many of these kids learn from other kids, who naturally know that there are individual differences. It’s not rocket science but my guess is that the folks at the conference haven’t got it right.

    Parker Thomas is right: if it weren’t for this program, these kids would be destroyed by the system, as they are in schools down the street. And now disadvantaged kids in some programs are being drilled in phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension in pre-school classes. It’s horrifying. Rarely have educators been more out of touch with kids’ basic nature than today.


  7. John,

    I’m excited about this work group, but I fear that the need to improve foundational language skills won’t be investigated. Take the oft taught skill “Finding the Main Idea.” When children have difficulty reaching mastery on this skill, it’s typical to go back and teach reading strategies like Visualizing, Monitoring/Clarifying, Predicting, etc.

    Based on the research, ( I suggest that we need to remediate basic language skills. Teaching better reading strategies doesn’t help a children improve their receptive and expressive language skills, which, I argue, is the child’s core weakness.

    I like the work the Lindamood-Bell company is doing in this area. They have a range of curricula around teaching fundamental language skills. If we can fix the language skills, we can better address reading skills.



  8. The conventional wisdom these days seems to be that schools are drilling our kids to death in decoding, which I assume means phonics skills, and as a result schools are producing good decoders but poor readers. I disagree with the claim that most schools are producing good phonics decoders. I believe that most schools are not teaching strong phonics decoding skills and this is a major root of the reading problem.

    Many of the reading tests that purport to show students have strong decoding skills are basically testing memorized sight vocabulary, not the ability to accurately and rapidly sound out unfamiliar words, which is the true test. These institutional decoding tests are essentially rigged for success, and obscure the dire reality that most students lack strong basic phonics skills.

    Don’t believe me? John, I propose you conduct the following simple experiment: take a copy of the New York Times or a similar newspaper into a low-income 4th grade classroom. Listen to the children read some articles to you one-to-one. I predict the vast majority will be inaccurate readers, with lots of guessing and skipping, some will be painfully slow non-fluent readers, and only a handful will be accurate, fluent readers.

    Then write a blog post about what you found. I’d love to read it.

    If I’m right, and you find that most of the children in the low-income 4th grade classroom have terrible phonics decoding skills, then I suggest that’s a problem that needs to made a priority. Until that problem is fixed (if in fact it exists), then those children will never become good readers with high comprehension.


    • @Brian I don’t disagree students have poor decoding skills, but I don’t it’s necessarily for lack of trying on the first grade teacher’s part. Let me suggest two other reasons for poor decoding skills: (1) Poor phonemic awareness going into first grade leading to poor phonics skills (2) Lack of opportunity for a student to practice. Having taught in a school with a 99% FARM population, I can attest to the limited opportunity my students had to practice the phonics skills they learned in my class.


  9. I have been teaching 11 years, 7 of those years in low-income, high risks schools. The is crisis is real and its depressing! I see kids by the 6th grade just completely giving up on school. I see parents that could careless if there children attend school or not. I have taught inner-city children, suburban and rural and its the same across the board. If the parents value education then the children value their education. If a parent does not value education it is extremely rare that their child will. As a teacher it is near impossible to teach and child to understand how valuable education is in this world if their parents do not back you up. When you teach in low-income, high-risk schools you are more then a teacher to those children, in many cases you are the only stable adult they have in their lives. We can’t change their home life, we can’t change how their parents view education but we can change how we support the teachers that work in these schools. We can change how when “handle” students who fail a grade, having them repeat the same grade with the same teacher does not motivate that child it discourages them. I could go on and on. Our focus has to be only on the things we can change not the ones we can’t. The most important thing we MUST to is realize that their is a crisis and something must change.


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