A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Start Early, Finish Strong: How to Help Every Child Become a Reader - July 1999

Introduction: The Right Kind of Reading War

The phrase reading war has been the popular description for long-running disagreements about the best way to teach children to read. Fierce battles have been waged by academics and theorists since the late 1800s (McCormick, 1999), with classroom teachers often spinning like weathervanes as they tried to align classroom practices with the prevailing winds.

The most recent conflicts, fought in school boards and state legislatures, are just the latest attempts by proponents of phonics and whole language to dominate the teaching of reading.

Through the years, though, the United States has been losing the real reading war—the war against illiteracy. Today, 10 million American schoolchildren are poor readers (Fletcher & Lyon, 1998). As a nation, we have failed to ensure that all children are good readers by the time they leave the primary grades.

Even with changing fashions in curriculum and instruction, and the overall push for education reform, the percentage of children who read well has not improved substantially for more than 25 years (NAEP 1996 Trends Report). Among our poorest children, more than half of all fourth-graders who are eligible for the free lunch program fail to read at the Basic achievement level needed for academic success (NAEP 1998 Reading Report Card). In our highest-poverty public schools, a whopping 68 percent of fourth-graders fail to reach the Basic level of achievement. Only one in 10 fourth-graders at these schools can read at the Proficient level, the ideal goal for all students (NAEP 1998 Reading Report Card).

Clearly, pursuit of the same old strategies won’t help more children master reading. To win this real reading war, it’s time to broaden our views on responsibility for reading, and enlist new and more effective troops—involved parents, highly skilled child care providers, effective primary schoolteachers, and committed communities. We must start early and finish strong, to help every child become a good reader.

A National Crusade

In his 1996 State of Education address, U.S. Education Secretary Richard W. Riley issued a clarion call for a new national crusade: every American child must become a good reader by the end of third grade. President Clinton’s 1997 State of the Union address launched a national literacy initiative, The America Reads Challenge, to pursue Riley’s goal. And in 1998, a landmark study by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences provided a blueprint for action to create a nation of readers. Significantly, the report, Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children, calls for an end to the old reading war and recommends a new research-based mix of instruction that suits each individual child.

Each of these recent actions has emphasized a common strategy for success: we must start early by preparing young children to read, and we must finish strong by providing excellent instruction and community support in the primary grades.

By starting early, we look to the roots of reading ability. Broadening our approach gives us the advantage of preparing children to read from birth, with the active involvement of loving families. Millions of early care and education personnel—in child care centers, preschools, and home-based child care—present a largely untapped resource for building the foundations for reading success. An early start enables every child to arrive at kindergarten ready to learn to read.

But a large survey of kindergarten teachers reported that 35 percent of children arrive at school unprepared to learn (Boyer, 1991). Children who lack reading readiness are more likely to develop reading problems when formal schooling begins (Scarborough, 1998). The preparation these children need comes from experiences rich with language and text, and from talking and reading with parents and caregivers (National Research Council, 1998).

Once in school, a child needs teachers with strong, research-based skills in reading instruction who have the support required to maintain these skills. Members of the community can help by tutoring children, helping parents, providing books, and supporting schools. Such a strong finish offers every student the best opportunity to become a good reader by the end of third grade.

Following the release of the National Research Council’s 1998 report, President Clinton signed The Reading Excellence Act, the most significant child literacy law enacted by Congress in more than three decades.

Most states have redoubled their efforts to significantly improve reading achievement. In recent years, more than 20 state legislatures have passed a flurry of new child literacy laws and budgets. (See Appendix II.)

Mayors, business leaders, community groups, and millions of individual Americans are taking the challenge and tackling the root causes of illiteracy. In 1999, we are witnessing a time of unparalleled activity to get more children on the road to reading.

The Need to Read

It would be hard to overstate the vital importance of learning to read well. Reading is the key that unlocks virtually all other learning.

Why Third Grade?

Children are expected to learn to read in the primary grades, kindergarten through third, when most reading instruction is given. By fourth grade, students are expected to read to learn.

Over time, learning becomes more complex, with heightened demands on students to use reading skills to analyze or to solve problems. Good reading skills are required to study geography, do math, use computers, and conduct experiments. Even motivated, hard-working students are severely hampered in their schoolwork if they cannot read well by the end of third grade.


Source: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services

Written language often delivers the content of science, mathematics, religion, politics, and other essential subjects. The Bible, the Torah, the Koran, and other great sacred texts are central to the world’s religions. Our nation’s founding documents also are written, as are the ballots through which we participate in civic life. Reading literature, poetry, and history allows us to reach out beyond our own lives to develop a broader and richer understanding of the human experience.

With all its wonder and power, even the Internet remains a text-driven medium: to navigate the World Wide Web, you must be able to read. As Vice President Gore has said, “In an economy increasingly powered by information and technology, reading and the ability to learn are strategic skills.”

Locked Out of the World of Words

For 38 percent of fourth-graders, access to the world of words is endangered because they read below the Basic achievement level, lacking even partial mastery of the reading skills needed for grade-level work (NAEP 1998 Reading Report Card). By eighth grade, 26 percent of the nation’s students continue to read below the Basic level set for that grade, and by twelfth grade, 23 percent remain below the Basic level. (The latter figure, of course, does not include students who dropped out before grade 12 due to poor literacy skills.)

These struggling readers are disproportionately from families living in poverty, according to the National Research Council. Poverty, and for some children, language differences, contribute to the large gaps between White and Asian students and Black and Hispanic students.

In fourth grade, 64 percent of Blacks and 60 percent of Hispanics read below the Basic level, compared with 27 percent of Whites and 31 percent of Asian/Pacific Islanders (NAEP 1998 Reading Report Card).

But poor readers should not be stereotyped; reading difficulties occur in every school and in all types of families. While roughly half of all children learn to read with relative ease, the others have more trouble (Lyon, 1997).

As many as one in five children will manifest a significant reading disability (Shaywitz et al., 1992). These students may not learn to connect the sounds of speech to written letters without intensive additional assistance—help that many do not receive (Lyon, 1997).

Without intervention, most poor readers remain poor readers, limiting their academic achievement and their potential. A startling 88 percent of children who have difficulty reading at the end of first grade display similar difficulties at the end of fourth grade (Juel, 1988). According to researchers at Yale University, three-quarters of students who are poor readers in third grade will remain poor readers in high school (Shaywitz et al., 1997).

The United States renewed efforts to reform its schools in 1983 when a blue-ribbon commission warned we were “a nation at risk.” Efforts were launched again in the mid-1990s to raise academic standards.

Since then, many important changes have been made by local schools, districts, states, and the federal government. But thus far, instead of producing dramatic reading gains for all students, these changes have only begun to move us in the right direction.

Percentage of Students withing Each Achievement Level Range for the Nation in 1998
Note: Percentages may not add up to 100 percent due to rounding.
Source: U.S. Department of Education, 1999.
The NAEP 1998 Reading Report Card for the Nation.

The Right Direction, But a Long Way to Go

A 1991 international study found that American fourth- and ninth-grade students performed well in reading skills assessments compared with those in other advanced nations, surpassed only by students in Finland (U.S. Department of Education, 1996).

But long-term trends seen in the NAEP show only minimal improvements in the reading proficiency of American 9-year-olds since 1971 (NAEP 1996 Trends Report). Thirteen-year-olds have just barely improved, and 17-year-olds read at about the same level as their counterparts did 25 years ago.

Definitions of NAEP
Achievement Levels

Basic:Partial mastery of the prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade.

Proficient: Solid academic performance and demonstration of competency over challenging subject matter for each grade.

Advanced: Superior performance.


Source: National Assessment Governing Board

The gap in achievement between White and Black children narrowed between 1971 and 1984, a time of substantial new emphasis and resources, but has persisted since. The gap between White and Hispanic fourth-graders has actually increased since 1992 (NAEP 1996 Trends Report).

Signs of Hope

For the first time ever, between 1994 and 1998, NAEP reading scores improved in all three grades tested (grades 4, 8, and 12).

These gains, though modest, are equivalent to improving reading ability from one-third to one-half of a grade level. Lower-performing fourth-graders and most middle school students made the most significant progress.

However, while reversing a downward trend, fourth- and twelfth-graders’ 1998 reading scores remained virtually the same as in 1992. (Modest gains were seen by eighth-graders).

Approximately four out of 10 fourth-graders remain below the Basic achievement level in reading (NAEP 1998 Reading Report Card).

Small pockets of improvement were seen by some Black students in 1998. Reading scores rose slightly for Black fourth- and eighth-graders since 1994.

Scores for eighth-grade Black children were also better than in 1992. (Black students’ twelfth-grade scores remained the same.)

Still, only 10 percent of Black fourth-graders performed at or above the Proficient level, compared with 39 percent of Whites and 13 percent of Hispanics.

Hispanic twelfth-graders did see slight gains between 1994 and 1998. But fourth- and eighth-grade Hispanics students saw no significant change. White fourth-graders saw no change in 1998, but White twelfth- and eighth-graders improved slightly since 1994. White eighth-graders’ scores were also an improvement over their 1992 results. The scores for Asian/Pacific Islander and Native American students made no significant change across these assessments.

Trends in Average Reading Scores for the Nation, 1971-1996
Source: U.S. Department of Education, 1997.
NAEP 1996 Trends in Academic Progress.

Aiming High, Falling Short

While proficiency in grade-level reading is the goal for every child, only a small portion of students achieve that high degree of mastery. About 31 percent of fourth-graders, 33 percent of eighth-graders, and 40 percent of twelfth-graders attained a Proficient level or higher in reading in 1998. Across the three grades, 7 percent or fewer reached the Advanced level of reading achievement, indicating superior performance. Fewer boys than girls reached the Basic and Proficient marks. Students whose parents had dropped out of or completed only high school also had significantly lower scores (NAEP 1998 Reading Report Card).

Poor reading ability can deter students from enriching activities and courses. Researchers have found that high school students with low reading skills spent less time in organized extracurricular activities such as clubs, teams, and bands, and more time shopping at the mall and talking on the telephone.

Poor readers are also less likely to take more than one year of math, science, and foreign language—the gateway courses to college (Siegel & Loman, 1991).

It is not surprising that more than 95 percent of high school dropouts score at the two lowest levels of reading proficiency on national assessments (U.S. Department of Education, OERI, 1993). These are the saddest casualties of losing the real reading war.

Poor Readers, Poor Prospects

Clearly, the inability to read well exacts a huge toll on individuals. But it costs the nation as well.

According to the National Institute for Literacy, family illiteracy often persists from one generation to the next. Low literacy is strongly related to unemployment, poverty, and crime. On average, welfare recipients ages 17 to 21 read at the sixth-grade level, well below what is needed to earn a living wage. In fact, 43 percent of those with the lowest literacy skills live in poverty.

Not surprisingly, those sent to prison generally have lower literacy skills than the rest of the population: 70 percent of prisoners fall into the lowest two levels of reading proficiency (National Institute for Literacy, 1998).

Increasingly, a strong work ethic and a strong back will not be enough to support a family. The global economy demands that workers can read, write, compute, solve problems, and communicate clearly. Yet one in four adults cannot perform the basic literacy requirements of a typical job (U.S. Office of Technology Assessment, 1993). Seventy-five percent of today’s jobs require at least a ninth-grade reading level (National Institute for Literacy, 1998). College-educated Americans are earning, on average, 76 percent more than Americans who have only a high school diploma (U.S. Department of Labor, 1999b).

In early 1999, Education Secretary Richard W. Riley issued a challenge to America’s students: reach beyond a high school diploma and aim to complete at least some college coursework. This challenge acknowledges a hard reality: of the 10 fastest-growing jobs in the next decade, eight will require either a college education or moderate to long-term postsecondary training (U.S. Department of Labor, 1997).

But literacy is about more than economics. Our ability to share information through the written word is vital in a democratic society. In order to live up to our democratic ideals and to share the richness that comes from thoughtful reflection, we must all be able to communicate and to make wise decisions.

It is clear that the United States cannot afford to lose the real reading war: we can no longer allow so many children to leave the third grade without the reading skills needed for school success.

To help all our children succeed and to compete as a nation, we must start early and finish strong; we must ensure that every American child becomes a reader.

Student Reading Performance By Race/ Ethnicity
Note: Percentages may not add up to 100 percent due to rounding.
Source: U.S. Department of Education, 1999.
The NAEP 1998 Reading Report Card for the Nation.

The Secrets of Reading Success

A bumper sticker states, “If you can read this, thank a teacher.” But the latest research indicates the situation is more complex.

Who plays the critical roles in preparing a successful reader?

First, as an essential starting point, families can maximize the benefits of parent-child communication from birth.

Second, caregivers and preschool teachers can be given training and resources to stimulate emergent literacy.

Third, children deserve well-trained teachers who understand reading development, who can pinpoint problems, and who can address them effectively (National Research Council, 1998).

But the consequential task of ensuring that children learn to read should not be left to families, providers, and teachers alone. Entire communities can rally around their children for literacy success. This means more partnerships between schools and communities. It means greater engagement of private enterprises, colleges, universities, and cultural groups. It means more volunteers and more opportunities for legions of mentors and tutors.

Americans from all walks of life must step forward to win the war against illiteracy.

Unlike children who are struggling to decode words, we as a nation have already unlocked the secrets to better reading. If we start early and finish strong, we can help every child become a good reader.

The momentum is with us for a breakthrough in student reading achievement.The only question that remains is whether we are commited to literacy for every American child.

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