Invest in a Strong Start for Children

A Toolkit for Donors on Early Childhood

Prepare kids to be strong readers

Strategy #3: Prepare kids to be strong readers

Over half of American fourth graders are not proficient readers.1 Reading proficiently by the end of third grade is a crucial educational milestone: further learning in school depends on the ability to read. Research shows that low reading levels at the end of third grade are a reliable predictor of high school dropout.2

There are many ways to ensure kids master the literacy skills they need to succeed in school and in life. Approaches outlined below include:

  • High Impact Opportunities: Our analysis of a specific, evidence-based program, including impact, costs, and cost per impact.
  • Additional examples: Programs whose work aligns with one of our strategies, but that have not yet been analyzed by our team.
  • Other ways funders can follow our strategic guidance beyond supporting direct service programs, such as getting involved in advocacy or systems building at the local, state or national levels.

1) Improve age-appropriate literacy-related instruction and exposure to books in preschool and elementary schools

Many low-income children enter kindergarten with a significant learning gap compared to wealthier peers,3 and research shows that it is quite difficult to make up that gap over the course of a child’s education.4 Promising approaches to closing this gap include intervening early to develop vocabulary and pre-literacy skills for preschool age children, and improving literacy instruction in the early elementary years.

Note: many of the programs noted under Provide Great Places to Learn also improve pre-literacy and school readiness.

  • High Impact Opportunity: Jumpstart – improving low-income preschool children’s pre-literacy and school readiness skills through supplementing curriculum and small group work with volunteers.  Read more…

Other proven or promising programs to improve literacy through school based instruction:

  • Success for All is an elementary school reading curriculum and teacher training program that has been shown through multiple, rigorous studies to improve children’s literacy skills.
  • Reading Recovery is a program developed by the Reading Recovery Council of North America, which is a membership organization for teachers. Reading Recovery provides specialized training and materials for teachers, who in turn provide targeted support to first graders who struggle with reading.
  • Sobrato Foundation SEAL Program is a promising program being tested with English Language Learners from pre-K to third grade in California. The SEAL program provides a language- and text-rich curriculum and environment in both Spanish and English.

2) Increase children’s exposure to language and books at home

Research has found that children in professional families hear approximately 11 million words per year; children in working-class families hear about six million words; and children in welfare-recipient families hear approximately three million words annually.5 Newer research has found that gaps in children’s language by socioeconomic group are evident as early as 18 months.6 While there is still some uncertainly as to what combination of quantity and quality of linguistic interaction with children is most effective,7 making sure that low-income children are exposed to a richer language environment at home is nonetheless a promising way to prepare children to eventually become strong readers.

Note: Many of the programs and interventions noted under Weave a Web of Support also teach parents about the importance of literacy and positive verbal interaction with children.

  • Reach Out and Read partners with local hospitals and pediatric clinics. Doctors and nurses are trained to “prescribe” regular reading to parents with young children during well-visits, and the program provides age-appropriate books for them to take home.
  • Save the Children implements Early Steps to School Success, a U.S.-based program that provides home visitation, book exchanges, and parenting classes for low-income, rural families.  Save the Children is currently working with the working with the LENA Foundation to test whether a language tracking device can help parents increase and improve their linguistic interactions with their children. The city of Providence, RI is also experimenting with this technology.
  • Springboard Collaborative (full profile below) has developed a promising, multidimensional approach to tackling children’s learning gaps. Springboard partners with schools to coach teachers in effective literacy techniques, while at the same time working intensively with parents to support children’s learning at home and during the summer.
  • Local Libraries, particularly branches in low income communities, are another way of making sure parents and children have access to books and digital teaching resources.
  • Reading is Fundamental and First Book provide low-income children with access to free books and other educational materials.

3) Support programs and institutions that reinforce learning (including reading) during the summer

Low-income children’s learning levels tend to fall during the summer, while their wealthier peers either hold steady or advance. Supporting summer learning programs for low-income children is another way funders can ensure children master the literacy skills they need. Check out our blog for more information on effects of summer on learning and options for funders.

Examples of other evidence-based programs with similar focus:

  • BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life) runs both after-school and summer programs for low-income students. BELL works in conjunction with schools and parents, and has demonstrated improved learning levels and engagement among participants.
  • Summer Advantage works with school districts to offer a summer academic enrichment program to struggling students. The program runs approximately five weeks and provides instructional support in literacy and math as well as art, gym, music and field trips.
  • Horizons partners with local public schools to identify students, and independent private schools and colleges to use their campus facilities to provide an enriched academic experience for selected low-income students.

4) Advocate in support of literacy-related funding and programs

  • Campaign for Grade Level Reading provides background information on literacy-related issues and brings funders, advocates and policy makers together to help assure a seamless system of care, services, and supports from birth through third grade. This includes policy and practice that promotes children’s optimal social, emotional, and cognitive development; improves professional development for the early childhood education workforce; and supports parents as their children’s first teacher.

For more information on ways funders can engage with the public sector to improve early childhood outcomes, see Patching the Quilt: Early Childhood Policy & Finance for Donors

158% of fourth graders scored below proficient in reading. See National Assessment of Education Progress 2013. Retrieved February 24 2014 from: http://nationsreportcard.gov

2Hernandez, D. Double Jeopardy: How Third Grade Reading Levels and Poverty Affect High School Graduation. Annie E. Casey Foundation, April 2011.

3Zill, N., & West, J. (2001, March). Entering kindergarten: A portrait of American children when they begin school: Findings from the condition of education 2000. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, NCES 2001-035, 27.

4Heckman, J. and Cunha, F. Investing in Our Young People. NBER Working Paper 16201, July 2010. Retrieved February 24 2012 from: http://www.nber.org/papers/w16201.pdf

5Hart, B. and Risley, T. Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children. 1995. Retrieved February 24 2014 from: http://www.strategiesforchildren.org/eea/6research_summaries/05_MeaningfulDifferences.pdf

6Fernald A., Marchman V. A., Weisleder A. (2013). SES differences in language processing skill and vocabulary are evident at 18 months. Developmental Science,16, 234–248.

7Cartmill et. al. Quality of early parent input predicts child vocabulary 3 years later. Retrieved February 24 2014 from: http://www.psych.upenn.edu/~gleitman/papers/Cartmill_et_al_2013_Quality_of_early_parent_input_predicts_child_vocabulary_3_years_later.pdf