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

Executive Summary

On the eve of the millennium, the United States is poised for a breakthrough in student reading achievement. If we can move beyond the “reading war” over instructional methods, we have good reason to be optimistic about progress in reading in the near future. This progress can be predicted based on the synergy of four key factors.

1. The need to read has never been greater. As difficult as life has been for illiterate Americans in the past,1 the economy of the near future will offer even fewer jobs for workers with poor reading skills. 2 The Information Age and the advance of technology into daily life make the job prospects for poor readers bleaker than ever. We must improve reading achievement now, or risk denying a substantial portion of students the opportunity to contribute to and participate fully in our society.3

2. More Americans at all levels of society—federal, state, community, school, and family—are mobilizing to improve reading. The American public understands that when our students fail to read, we are failing them. An unprecedented pro-literacy movement, focused on children under age 9, is driving activities in thousands of communities today and could do so in thousands more tomorrow.

The Clinton-Gore administration has joined Congress to create the boldest national reading initiative in 30 years.4 Governors and legislatures in the majority of states are taking decisive action regarding illiteracy,5 and many mayors of cities with stubborn illiteracy rates are tackling the challenge head-on.

Newspapers, businesses, libraries, sports teams, community service groups, employees, college students, and volunteers of all ages are stepping forward to tutor children, work with parents, provide books, and support schools.6 In fact, in 1999 we are witnessing a year of unparalleled activity to get more children on the road to reading.

This crusade is reshaping our view of the reading challenge. No longer can we simply point fingers at schools for failing to teach students to read. Every parent, teacher, and citizen has a role to play to spark dramatic improvement in reading.

By expanding our view of who contributes to students’ reading success, we are increasing the opportunities for millions of Americans to endow our children with this lifelong skill. If we succeed in engaging this untapped pool of adults, the results will revolutionize education in this country.

3. A blueprint for action is now available. The U.S. Department of Education commissioned the National Research Council to write a scholarly and independent review of all reading research on children. The council’s 1998 landmark report, Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children,7 clearly lays out what we can and must do to help every child become a reader. This widely respected report calls for an end to the “reading war” over instructional methods and for the adoption of a variety of common sense and research-based techniques.

The National Research Council found that children benefit from experiences in early childhood that foster language development, cultivate a motivation to read, and establish a link between print and spoken words. Later, students need to develop a clear understanding of the relationship between letters and sounds, and an ability to obtain meaning from what they read.

Teaching with a flexible mix of research-based instructional methods, geared toward individual students, is more effective than strict adherence to any one approach.

Teachers need to understand the most up-to-date reading research and be able to implement it in their classrooms.

Teachers also must be able to identify reading difficulties in students early on and marshal appropriate interventions in response. Young learners need continuing encouragement and individualized instruction to succeed.

4. For the first time since reading achievement has been measured, national reading scores have improved in all three grades tested. On the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Reading Report Card,8 average reading scores in grades 4, 8, and 12 rose from one-third to one-half of a grade level between 1994 and 1998. While much remains to be done, this modest progress reflects a renewed commitment to improve reading and reveals the potential for greater success if everyone works together, using the best and latest research.

The Task Ahead
Powered by the dynamics of the economy, the reading crusade of our citizens, a blueprint for action, and unprecedented momentum, a significant reading breakthrough is within our grasp. Start Early, Finish Strong lays out what we must do to accelerate the pace, and to leave no child behind.

Start Early
By starting early, we address the fact that the roots of reading take hold well before children go to school. We cannot focus only on fourth-grade reading scores as the problem, because children’s reading habits and skills are already well established by that age. We now know we should start much earlier—even from birth—to develop a child’s reading ability. Research shows we can improve reading achievement by starting in early childhood to build cognitive and language skills.9

Parents and early caregivers play an essential role in laying the foundations for literacy by talking and reading daily to babies and toddlers. A recent parent survey offers a hopeful sign: more preschoolers are being read to daily by family members than in recent years.10 Yet more than 4 in 10 preschoolers, 5 in 10 toddlers, and 6 in 10 babies are not read to regularly.11 All parents of young children need encouragement to read to their children. Grandparents and other adults can become a child’s daily reader too.

Six in 10 children spend a substantial part of each day in the care of someone other than a parent.12 Child care providers and early childhood teachers can do much more to prepare young children for reading success.

Working in preschools, child care centers, nursery schools, and home-based care settings, this corps of adults has tremendous potential to enhance young children’s language development and thus prepare them to read better. Many of these providers and teachers, however, need better training13 and higher wages14 to more effectively promote the cognitive, language, social, and emotional development that are the foundations of reading success.

Finish Strong
When a child enters school ready to read, what happens next? That’s when all adults in the child’s life must be prepared—to “finish strong.” Schools can’t do it alone. But improvements in primary school—kindergarten through third grade—present a tremendous opportunity to boost reading achievement. We now know how to finish the job that parents and caregivers start: parents must stay involved, and nothing is more important than a highly skilled, well-prepared teacher.15

Universities, colleges of education, state teacher licensing boards, and legislatures must raise standards for proficiency in reading instruction for teacher candidates.16 Veteran teachers need high-quality, ongoing professional development in research-based reading instruction.17 Teachers need time to work together to improve their teaching techniques, and elementary school principals can integrate a schoolwide focus on reading achievement.18 Parents and community members can form reading compacts with schools to marshal all their resources to help more children succeed.19

A key factor for a strong finish is the involvement of the whole community in the pro-literacy crusade. The seeds of this crusade are already sprouting in cities and towns nationwide, and these examples can be shared with and replicated in many communities.

Every elementary school child who needs a tutor should have one, for extra reading practice during or after school.20 All students, but especially poor children, benefit from summer reading programs to prevent erosion of reading skills and promote the joy of reading.21 Many more children need books to read and adults to read to them.22 Every citizen can help and millions more can contribute to make every child a proficient reader.

The momentum is with us for a breakthrough in student reading achievement. To seize this moment in history, we must lay down our weapons in the old reading war and engage new troops in the right kind of reading war—the war on illiteracy. If we all commit to “start early, finish strong,” we can achieve a breakthrough and help every child become a good reader.


1 Low literacy is strongly related to unemployment, poverty, and crime. About 43 percent of those with the lowest literacy skills live in poverty, and 70 percent of the prison population falls into the two lowest levels of reading proficiency. 1998 National Institute for Literacy Fact Sheet.

2 Eight of the 10 fastest-growing jobs in the next decade will require either a college education or moderate to long-term postsecondary training. U.S. Department of Labor: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Silvestri, G.T. (1997). Occupational Employment Projections to 2006. Monthly Labor Review, November 1997, Table 3, p. 77.

3 In 1998, nearly four in 10 fourth-graders nationwide failed to achieve even partial mastery of the reading skills needed for school success. In our highest-poverty schools, nearly seven in 10 fourth-graders fail to read at this Basic level. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (1999). The 1998 NAEP Reading Report Card for the Nation. NCES 1999-459, by Donahue, P.L., Voelkl, K.E., Campbell, J.R., and Mazzeo, J. Washington, D.C.: Author.

4 The Reading Excellence Act authorizes $260 million in 1999 for professional development of teachers, out-of-school tutoring, family literacy and transitional programs for kindergarteners. The U.S. Department of Education issues competitive grants to the states, which then hold grant competitions that favor school districts with children most in need.

5 Forty-two states reported significant new literacy activity at the National Reading Summit in September 1998, and more than 20 states enacted reading improvement legislation between 1996 and 1999. Many governors have pledged further action. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Intergovernmental and Interagency Affairs.

6 More than 2.2 million children have been tutored in reading through the Corporation for National Service. More than 22,000 college students served as reading tutors under the Federal Work-Study program in 1997-98, and thousands more serve as volunteers. The President's Coalition for America Reads and many other organizations are active across the nation. U.S. Department of Education, America Reads.

7 National Research Council. (1998). Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

8 U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (1999). The 1998 NAEP Reading Report Card for the Nation. NCES 1999-459, by Donahue, P.L., Voelkl, K.E., Campbell, J.R., and Mazzeo, J., Washington, D.C.: Author.

9 Counting, number concepts, letter names and shapes, associating sounds with letters, interest in reading, and cooperation with other children are all relevant to learning to read. Wells, C. G. (1985). Preschool Literacy-Related Activities and Success in School. Literacy, Language, and Learning. London: Cambridge University Press.

10 About 57 percent of children ages 3 to 5 were read to daily by a family member in 1996, up from 53 percent in 1993. U.S. Department of Education. (1996). National Household Education Survey, 1995. Washington, D.C.: Author.

11 Only 48 percent of parents of toddlers ages 1 to 3, and 39 percent of parents of infants reported reading daily to their children in 1996. Young, K. T., Davis, K., and Schoen, C. (1996). The Commonwealth Fund Survey of Parents with Young Children. New York: The Commonwealth Fund.

12 U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (1996). Child Care and Early Education Program Participation of Infants, Toddlers, and Preschoolers. Statistics in Brief. NCES 95-824. Washington, D.C.: Author.

13 Higher education and specialized training enhance the ability of early childhood teachers to do a better job of advancing children’s language skills, a key predictor of later reading success. Whitebook, M., Howes, C., and Phillips, D. (1990). The National Child Care Staffing Study. Oakland, CA: National Center for Early Childhood Workforce.

14 Inadequate funding is the primary reason for the low quality of care experienced by most children. Gomby, D., Larner, M., Terman, D., Krantzler, N., Stevenson, C., and Behrman, R. (1996). Financing Child Care: Analysis and Recommendations. The Future of Children: Financing Child Care, 6(2), 5-25.

15 National Research Council. (1998). Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

16 ibid.

17 ibid.

18 ibid.

19 Effective compacts between parents and schools increase parental involvement in their children’s education, with positive student outcomes, particularly in high-poverty schools. D’Agostino, J., Wong, K., Hedges, L., and Borman, G. (1998). The Effectiveness of Title I Parent Programs: A Multilevel Analysis of Prospects Data. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Diego, Calif., April 1998. Note: A new Compact for Reading Guide is available free from the U.S. Department of Education. See Reading Resources, Appendix I at the end of this document.

20 An analysis of 65 studies of high-quality tutoring programs found positive, modest achievement effects across all the studies. Structured tutoring programs demonstrated higher achievement gains than unstructured programs. Students tutored in reading showed positive results for self-confidence, motivation to read, and views of their control over their reading abilities. Cohen, P.A., Kulik, J.A., and Kulik, C.L.C. (1982). Educational Outcomes of Tutoring: A Meta-analysis of Findings. American Educational Research Journal, 19, 237-248.

21 Alexander, K. and Entwisle, D. (1996). Early Schooling and Educational Inequality: Socioeconomic Disparities in Children’s Learning. In J.S. Coleman (ed.) Falmer sociology series, 63-79. London: Falmer Press.

22 For America’s poorest children, the biggest obstacle to literacy may be the scarcity of books and appropriate reading material. Needlman, R., Fried, L., Morley, D., Taylor, S., and Zuckerman, B. (1991). Clinic Based Intervention to Promote Literacy. American Journal of Diseases of Children, Volume 145, August, 1991, 881-884.


Table of Contents  The Right Kind of Reading War