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Read Proficiently by 4th Grade

Many of us may not realize that reading is a critical bridge to success in school, work and life. Children generally are learning to read until third grade. By the fourth grade, they should be reading to learn. After that, coursework gets harder and reading becomes more challenging. Students who don’t read well have increasing difficulty keeping up. This can lead to bad grades, disengaging from school, and dropping out. In fact, children who aren’t reading at grade level by the end of third grade are four times as likely to drop out of high school.1 But nationally, two-thirds of students are not reading on grade level by fourth grade, the earliest year of testing in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). That proportion rises to four-fifths for children from low-wage families. Although school districts and states may measure reading at different times in elementary school, NAEP is the only national reading report card. (Find your state’s data) And extrapolating from other data, experts estimate that at least six million children in first through third grades are likely to be reading below grade level as well.2

United Way Worldwide is deeply involved in early grade literacy through several key partnerships – The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a collaborative effort by foundations, nonprofit partners, states and communities across the nation focused on the most important predictor of school success and high school graduation—grade-level reading by the end of third grade; and The Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private charitable organization, dedicated to helping build better futures for disadvantaged children in the United States (be sure to check out the Annie E. Casey-funded early grade reading mobilization online toolkit for United Ways and community partners).

Many United Ways report working on early grade literacy. This will enable us to identify, fuel and replicate best practices in this area more quickly.

Case Study:

Heart of West Michigan United Way’s Schools of Hope tackles the problem of illiteracy by focusing on early grade reading. Their three-pronged approach helps struggling students achieve the reading skills they need to move ahead. It includes:

  • In School tutoring
  • After School literacy programs
  • Family Literacy classes.

This award-winning initiative currently partners with four school districts and works to equip students with the resources they need to achieve academic success.

It’s working. Students in the Schools of Hope In School program were able to read at grade level by the end of third grade. Students in the After School Program gained an average of 1.23 years of reading growth during a single program year. 

1 Donald J. Hernandez, Double Jeopardy: How Third-Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation. The Annie E. Casey Foundation; Center
for Demographic Analysis, University at Albany, State of New York; Foundation for Child Development, 2012.
2 The National Center for Education Statistics ( reports that more than 34 million students are enrolled in public schools, pre-kindergarten through
eighth grade. This means that at least 6 million children in 1st through 3rd grades are unlikely to be reading proficiently by 4th grade.