Search for Solutions Research: Third Grade Reading Proficiency


3rd Grade Reading Proficiency

We deliver breakthrough solutions that transform the opportunity landscape for Colorado’s kids and their families.

The Goal: Through our Search for Solutions (SFS) process, we’re seeking to partner with the Metro Denver community to dramatically increase the percentage of kids reading on grade-level by the end of third grade.

The Persistent Problem Surrounding Third Grade Reading

Despite many years of hard work by many people, too few of our children have the reading skills they need for success in school, and life. Approximately 40% of all kids living in the Denver Metro Area read on grade level by the end of third grade; the rate declines to about half of that for those living in poverty. Third grade reading scores aren’t just a marker for young learners, but predictive of future graduation and post-secondary success as well. This is because, as the saying goes, until 3rd grade children learn to read but after 3rd grade children read to learn.

We believe that together, we can do better. With our Search for Solutions (SFS) process, we’re aiming to do just that.

What We’ve Learned From Our Community

To learn why this is such a persistent and widespread problem, we talked with lots of stakeholders. From educators to reading specialists to advocates to researchers to dozens of elementary schoolers and parents themselves, we’ve learned this isn’t a “school problem” — and it’s certainly not a problem with our kids. Instead, we heard three things:

  • Kids love to learn, and there are lots of ways we can nurture their love of reading, whether it’s finding new ways to “game-ify” reading skill development, giving students more choice in what they read in school, or investing them in their reading success. 
  • Adult understanding of how kids learn to read is incomplete. Many adults think of reading as a school-based, text-based activity. But learning to read actually starts as soon as a baby hears sounds and language. Learning to read happens both everywhere and early.
  • Families and the broader community want to support children’s reading skills, but aren’t sure how. Learning to read takes a village – and the village wants to help! We put too much on the shoulders of schools and teachers alone.

The Academic Research Behind Our Third Grade Reading Search for Solutions

As part of our research we talked with dozens of early readers and parents of early readers and dozens more community, non-profit and school leaders across the Denver Metro Area. We also hit the books. Below, we summarize the themes of our research to support your ideation: 

  • The State of Third Grade Reading in Colorado: In Colorado, approximately 40% of all third graders are reading proficiently by the end of third grade on CMAS, our statewide assessments. It is relatively flat, with 40.1% of students reading on grade-level in 2017, 40.4% in 2018, and 41.3% in 2019. This tracks pretty similarly with NAEP, the National Assessment of Academic Progress, found in 2019 that 40% of Colorado 4th graders were reading on grade level. The gap between students not eligible for free and reduced lunch (non-FRL, a proxy for middle and high income) and students eligible for free and reduced lunch (FRL, a proxy for low-income) is considerable: For non-FRL students, Colorado-wide, 54% of students are reading on grade level. However, low-income (FRL eligible) third grade students are reading proficiently at about half that rate with, for example, 22% of low-income students reading on grade-level in Denver Public Schools in 2019. There is certainly variation across schools and school districts in the Metro area but with some notable exceptions, the outcomes generally track fairly similarly. All of this is dramatically lower than we believe it can and should be. 
  • Learning to read is a spoken and sound-infused process that we often treat as a text-only process: Learning to read is indeed a complex task of making meaning from a written code, but it has a proven science. That science teaches us that learning to read starts with and relies heavily on sounds and spoken language. As put by Dr. Mark Seidenberg, a leading researcher and the author of the Language at the Speed of Sight, “We ‘hear’ words when we read.” It then builds with the development of discrete skills and consistent practice – practice that doesn’t have to be hard and can be fun. But all the “read alouds” in the world won’t teach most children to read. Indeed, playing rhyming games, and adults and children talking together, may be just as useful at particular stages of a child’s reading development – or more. 
  • Learning to read is a community-wide endeavor that we largely treat like a school-based endeavor: Many of us – educators, parents, advocates and others – have come to believe that school should be the primary place where children learn to read. This may be right about other subjects, but this is incorrect about reading. If reading starts with sounds, preparation for becoming a reader begins the moment a child first hears their parent’s voice. And if that’s the case, we cannot expect formal schooling – even if fully optimized or starting in Pre-Kindergarten instead of Kindergarten – to “do it all” on reading. Further, even when they come to school, leading researchers report kids spend less than ⅓ of their waking hours there and continue to get much of their experience and practice with language, sounds, texts elsewhere.
The Opportunity:  We believe there is brilliance across our community and the nation to bring to this big problem, and we humbly invite you to share your ideas through our SFS process.

The research has led us to these three key themes and questions. We now turn to you – families, nonprofit leaders, teachers, business leaders, advocates and kids – because we think it will take all of us to dramatically increase the percent of children reading on grade-level. 

SFS Theme 1: Child Information, Tools, and Mobilization

At the heart of it all, is each young reader. We’ve talked with dozens of children, and most – even the vast majority of the struggling readers – report enjoying reading (even if, to quote one Denver second grader, “well, it is less fun than video games”.) The children we talked with generally report loving the stories that are about things they are interested in (shout out to the book, “Hoot”, which got lots of love from one group of students we interviewed) and sometimes can’t remember what they just read if it wasn’t engaging to them. 

We believe in centering those who are living the problem, which is, in this case, early readers, and so we are interested in how others are centralizing them as well. As such

  • How might we put kids in the driver’s seat by giving them new ways to learn to read on their own and at their own pace?
  • How might we make reading activities more delightful and meaningful?
  • How might we help kids understand their own reading level and next steps they can take to grow?

Before we offer possible ideas, a note of transparency: the following list is offered as inspiration and not prescription or indication of what we think are “right” solutions. If we thought we had all the answers, we wouldn’t be searching for solutions.

  • An app builder has a successful platform for kids aged 0-5 to practice early phonics skills that they want to expand for kids aged 5-8. 
  • A dad has an idea for a centralized hub for her child’s early reading data and next step practice activities that her child could access and practice with independently. 
  • A school leader has an early literacy homework toolkit that results in students deeply knowing both their reading level and best next step to practice, and the school leader believes it could scale.

SFS Theme 2: Family Information, Tools, and Mobilization

Families deeply want to know how their children are doing in acquiring reading skills. We supported a literacy fair earlier this summer where there were games, read alouds, bookmark art, books and chromebook giveaways, even a bouncy house, and an early literacy conference table where families could get their child’s current reading level. We thought the literacy conference was going to be a dud compared to the bouncy house. But dozens of families – and kids – chose to spend their time at the fair learning how their child was doing in reading. This confirmed what we had been hearing  – the information families have about how their child is doing in early reading is often very limited or hard to understand. We know there has to be better ways of communicating early reading progress with families than the traditional report cards and state assessment reports. 

The vast majority of families we talked to are really excited to be supporters of their child’s early literacy. The kids we’ve talked to love reading and telling stories with their parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts and uncles (and even the family pets)! However, even highly motivated families also report not always knowing what to do next to support their child’s reading. As such:

  • How might we provide better, more actionable information about a child’s reading skills?
  • In addition to reading aloud to children, how might we provide the right knowledge and tools so they can serve as one of the primary participants in building a child’s reading skills?
  • How might we arm families with the right knowledge about the best, easiest practices to improve a child’s reading skills?

Below, we offer some inspiration on this theme:

  • A teacher believes we should change Colorado law to require and fund parent-teacher conferences at least eight times per year in Pre-Kindergarten through 3rd grade. 
  • A company has a new, more accessible and actionable report card tool they would like to bring to Colorado. 
  • A family organizing network wants to develop their capacity to serve as “early literacy navigators” for the families in their community, connecting them to in school and out of school opportunities.

SFS Theme 3: Community Information, Tools, and Mobilization

Families play a lead role in a child’s experience outside of school, but there are lots of members of our community engaged in serving and caring for children – summer camps, after school programs, neighbors, neighborhood groups, religious groups, local organizers and others. And reading practice doesn’t just happen at home or in school. In our conversation so far, we’ve heard about kids and families reading in parks, at the grocery store, in church and at the bus stop. 

Lots of people in lots of parts of our community are or really want to be involved but don’t always know how. We believe they, and many others, can be critical partners in supporting children’s early literacy as well. As such:

  • How might we provide community members better, more actionable information about the reading skills of the kids in their care?
  • How might we encourage new and different community members to join in improving our kids’ reading skills?
  • How might we equip community members with the tools and resources needed to improve our kids’ reading skills?

Below we offer some inspiration on the topic: 

  • A Westminster church with dozens of regular attendees wants to add an early literacy skill developing to Sunday school. 
  • A local grocery store chain wants to post early-literacy supporting signs and games to their store so that parents can play with their child while shopping. 
  • An after school program wants access to District and State records to see how students are doing in early literacy at school with more regularity and plan their work with the child with more precision.
Ready to participate? Click the button below to submit your solution.

Discover New Possibilities

Together, we will create the change our community wants to see. Whether you want to discover more about our ventures, or connect with a member of our team, we want to hear from you.