We want all kids to read well by the end of third grade, the year when reading abilities can predict the likeliness of high school graduation. The idea is so important that 18 states and the District of Columbia have mandatory third-grade retention policies requiring students to demonstrate proficiency in reading or be “held back”. Additionally, over half of the states have remediation and academic support policies in place for students who are not reading at grade level by the end of third grade.

The challenge of supporting all students to read at grade level by third grade is that our policies are often not aligned with meeting this goal. To do so would require ensuring that every child has a teacher who is well versed in the specialized knowledge and skill required early elementary reading.

The Importance of High-Quality Literacy Teaching in the Early Elementary Grades

Photo of Child Reading

It is well established that children’s literacy experiences in their early years play a key role in establishing their life trajectory. Research has repeatedly demonstrated the link between high-quality early literacy learning experiences and later academic achievement, grade retention, graduation rates, and overall earning power as an adult. Economists point out that strengthening learning in early years is much easier and cheaper than more costly solutions later in life and provides the greatest return on investment.

However, literacy achievement outcomes in the United States remain much less than ideal despite considerable federal dollars spent on literacy learning. Why, despite considerable investment, has there been no significant movement in early literacy achievement? This is especially bewildering in an area where, as many scholars have noted, there is some hard-won consensus with regard to the types of learning experiences young children need in order to become proficient readers and writers. Researchers and practitioners mostly agree on what high-quality early literacy instruction looks like and yet high-quality instruction remains elusive in too many early elementary classrooms.

Let’s explore two reasons why, from a policy standpoint, early elementary literacy achievement has remained relatively stagnant. We will take a closer look at:

  1. Teacher licensure requirements
  2. Assessment and evaluation norms

Licensure Requirements Do Not Support Strong Knowledge and Skills to Teach Early Reading

Photo of a Reading Poster

Teaching young children to read is perhaps the most important skill of an elementary teacher. However, candidates learning to teach may have minimal preparation that targets early elementary, specifically. In some states teaching candidates take just one course focused on beginning reading instruction. You cannot learn all of the specialized knowledge to teach reading in such a short period of time. Imagine a candidate pursuing K-8 certification in the state of Arizona. After completing two required courses on teaching reading (that focus on the entire K-8 spectrum) the candidate student teaches in fifth grade and is then certified to teach K-8. After graduation, the candidate is hired to teach first grade but has no formal teaching experience at those grades and minimal preparation through university coursework.

There is little incentive for individuals to pursue early childhood certification. In the state of Delaware, for example, an individual could pursue early childhood certification, which spans birth to grade two, or get certified in elementary education, which spans kindergarten through grade six. Teachers pursuing certification are wise to maximize their job options upon certification, and so it makes sense to pursue K-6 certification over the narrow preK-2 band, especially when there is such considerable overlap with the K-6 certification. Across 50 states and the District of Colombia, 36 states offer elementary teacher certification that spans in K-6 or K-8. If teaching early elementary literacy requires specialized knowledge and skill, we currently cannot guarantee that all certified teachers have been trained to do this specialized work.

Teacher Evaluation Rubrics Do Not Measure Early Literacy Teaching

Teacher evaluation systems typically do not focus on literacy instruction specifically. Districts are likely to adopt a single evaluation rubric for their entire K-12 system. Because the evaluation tool will be used broadly, it is focused on generic pedagogies and habits rather than grade-level or content-specific knowledge and skills. This means that teachers with little or no knowledge of how to teach literacy effectively might perform well on the existing evaluation measures. The broad categories in many evaluation frameworks make it possible to demonstrate general knowledge of students, learning, management, and assessment without demonstrating the capacity to address the pressing need to provide students with targeted and focused instruction in literacy teaching. Hence, a teacher could be observed conducting an interactive storybook read aloud with quality language modeling, quality feedback, and appropriate concept development but still not know much about teaching young children how to read and write independently. Put simply, teaching young children to read and write requires a specific set of instructional capabilities, and these capabilities are not fully evaluated on existing generic evaluation tools.

Additionally, assessment tools required by states for initial certification are also questionable with regard to their focus on candidates’ knowledge of early literacy teaching. NCTQ’s recent audit of licensure tests suggests that just 11 states have licensure tests focused on the science of reading instruction.

Building K-3 Teachers’ Capacity to Teach Early Reading

Photo of Children Reading

Teaching young children to read is challenging work that requires specialized knowledge and skill beyond simply knowing how to read. Early elementary teachers must be steeped in knowledge of language development, phonics, and understanding how beginning readers move from early decoding to more skillful reading. Yet there is an ongoing perception that early elementary grades are the easiest grades to teach. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Changing third-grade reading outcomes will require having a highly trained early reading teacher in every elementary classroom. Given the current policy realities explored above, if states want to meet the challenge of having all kids read well by the end of third grade, they must invest in building teacher capacity in the early elementary grades with learning opportunities that are focused specifically on doing this important, specialized work. One way to do this is through competency-based training.

Sarah Scott Frank, Ph.D.

Founder of OpenLiteracy

“Teachers are the key to student success, and preparing teachers with the knowledge and skill to implement high quality literacy instruction every day is the strongest lever we have towards improving student achievement outcomes.”