Third Grade Literacy

Reading proficiency is commonly described as the ability to read and interpret meaning from varied texts involving three sets of interrelated skills that develop over time: 

• language and communication 
• mechanics of reading 
• content knowledge 

By the third grade, all students should be reading proficient.  However the fourth grade National Assessment of Educational Progress tests found that 69% of Michigan students are NOT proficient in reading at the beginning of fourth grade. 

Third Grade Literacy

Additionally, only 46 percent of Michigan third-graders passed the English language arts exam in state assessment tests taken in spring 2016. Of the 54 percent who did not pass, 25 percent were deemed "partially proficient" and 29 percent were "not proficient."

Why Third Grade Is a Pivotal Year for Reading, Anne Kel-Artinian and Danielle Parisi have outlined the five key points to understanding the importance of third-grade reading skills.

  1. It’s never too early. Establishing the necessary skills for reading by third grade is essential. Research has shown that 75 percent of students who struggle with reading in third grade never catch up. In fact, those students are four times as likely to drop out of high school. Early screening with technically sound tools helps identify at-risk students and their needs. And the right research-based intervention can change the learning trajectories for those students.
  2. Fourth grade really is different. Traditionally, the curricular materials that students encounter in the fourth grade are more complex, not just in terms of the text but in the concepts and information they convey. In the fourth grade, science and social studies requires more reading grounded in the academic vocabulary and ideas of those domains. Math includes word problems that rely on strong reading comprehension. It’s a big leap, and many of the students who are not prepared begin the difficult-to-reverse cycle of avoiding reading.
  3. It’s a social justice issue. Kids in economically fragile communities read with far less proficiency by third grade than their better-off counterparts. This means that by third-grade they can already expect fewer of the socioeconomic advantages that come with a college education; their path is, to a certain extent, already set. Although third-grade reading proficiency has improved overall in the past decade, most of those gains occurred with students from middle-class backgrounds, which means that the achievement gap is actually widening. Steps must be taken to mitigate the disparity, including increasing access to preschool and academically rich summer activities. 
  4. We should aim higher. The fourth-grade National Assessment of Educational Progress tests reveal huge gaps as to how states define reading proficiency. No state defines proficiency at the same high level as NAEP and many states define proficiency at a much lower level in a trend that’s been called “race to the bottom”. Third-grade reading must go beyond the basic reading skills and give students the ability to pull together the various technical elements of reading with meaning and higher-order thinking to be successful with increasingly complex text. So when it comes to third-grade reading, we need to stop assuming that students are O.K. when they meet the “low-bar” definition of reading. We really need to aim for the high bar for all students.
  5. We need data. Because reading involves so many skills and strategies, it’s important to gain a comprehensive understanding of students’ performance on the key indicators of reading success to know how to tailor instruction to address specific student needs, before it’s too late. In the very younger grades, one-to one observational assessments are critical and attune teachers to the specific reading behaviors to look for in and out of the assessment environment.
    See: Why Third Grade Is A Pivotal Year For Reading -- by Anne Kel-Artinian and Danielle Parisi 


The movement of the State of Michigan to the forefront of the national effort to increase the literacy of students by the third grade was supported by the Third Grade Reading Workgroup which was created by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder in 2015 to analyze Michigan’s reading proficiency at the third-grade level and to suggest policy to improve this necessary element of future academic and career success. 

Starting shortly after the year 2000, the reading proficiency of Michigan students began a steady decline while almost every other state was improving. To understand this problem and address it effectively, the workgroup reviewed data and programs from various states, and interviewed teachers, reading intervention specialists, principals, superintendents, professors of early literacy development, and policy experts. National test results indicated that more than two-thirds of all Michigan students had failed to demonstrate third grade proficiency on standardized reading tests. 

The Third Grade Reading Workgroup’s findings and strategy recommendations were instrumental in the passage of the 2016 early literacy legislation (Public Act 306 of 2016) and the Department of Education’s Early Literacy Initiative which has as its goals to analyze Michigan’s reading proficiency at the third-grade level and to suggest policy to improve this necessary element of future academic and career success for students in the State of Michigan. For more information, please click here:,4615,7-140-28753_74161---,00.html


Early-grade reading proficiency in the United States is extremely low for students from low-income families and children of color. In 2011, 82 percent of fourth-graders from low-income families— and 84 percent of low-income students who attend high-poverty schools — failed to reach the “proficient” level in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests. The share of low-income black, Hispanic, and Native American students who scored below proficient on the NAEP reading test was very high (88, 86 and 87 percent, respectively) and much larger than the share of low-income white or Asian/Pacific Islander students (74 and 72 percent). New research has helped quantify and reinforce the correlations. For a report on Third Grade Literacy from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, click here:

In Michigan, the gap in third grade literacy between those living in poverty and those not living in poverty is also telling. As of March, 2016, Third Grade Reading Proficiency in Michigan was only 50.1% for all children, but if a student in Michigan was considered to be “economically disadvantaged,” the percentage of children in that group considered to be reading proficient fell to 35%.

The challenge that poverty represents to improving the literacy of the children in the areas served by The Pokagon Fund is seen in the finding by the Michigan League for Public Policy’s Kids Count in Michigan Data Book 2016 that more than 26.2% of children in Berrien County are living in poverty. Narrowing the focus just to our local school districts, 38% of New Buffalo School System students and 52.1% of River Valley School System students were eligible for the free end reduced cost lunch program in 2014, or a total of 535 students. 

It is one of the highest priorities of The Pokagon Fund to overcome the impact that poverty and lack of food security have on the ability of students in its service area to learn to read and achieve in our local school systems.

For additional research on third grade literacy see the following: