Why a Third Grade Reading Guarantee is So Important

And What You Can Do to Empower Your Early Learners

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), more than 80% of children from low-income families do not read proficiently at the end of third grade.

Children who do not read well by the end of third grade are four times more likely to leave school without a diploma than proficient readers (1), and two-thirds of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of the fourth grade will end up in jail or on welfare (2). According to Barbara O’Brien, Senior Consultant at The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, some states even use grade-level reading statistics to predict the amount of prison space they will need in the future.

These statistics are troubling, and perhaps difficult to read. They highlight an ongoing crisis that impacts children across the country, especially affecting special populations of children who would be capable of performing to a high academic standard if they had access to higher quality curriculum resources. The third grade reading retention crisis is a matter of equity, accessibility, and circumstance. For educators who invest so much time and care into their students, it’s deeply saddening — but it doesn’t have to continue in a downward trend. Policy makers, initiatives like the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, and educational leaders are aware of the crisis, and are working to make changes that empower every student to read proficiently by the third grade. When implemented by dedicated and talented teachers, those changes could make powerful differences for children.

The effort to reverse the reading retention crisis goes by many names, but is generally called the Third Grade Reading Guarantee, and has been adopted by many states across the country. Essentially, it combines best practices in intervention, attempts at improved policy, and research-based instruction to build a system that ensures each child is prepared to engage with more challenging reading activities in higher grades. Its aim is to raise proficiency, but also to ensure confidence, communication skills, analytical skills, and college readiness.

A Third Grade Reading Guarantee program typically has three core components, depending on your state:

  • Identifying reading deficiencies through assessment
  • Providing intervention for struggling readers in grades K-3
  • Retaining students who do not read proficiently by the end of third grade (depending on your state, this may be flexible)

As an educator, you’re looking to drive real change for your students, which means translating policy and planning into strategy and action. To bring this policy to your classroom in an effective, meaningful way, we suggest focusing on three core areas:

K-3 ELA Program

Early learners need robust, strong content throughout the first three to four years of their academic experience with literacy. Your program should arm students with academic language skills, plenty of vocabulary, and emphasize awareness of segments of sounds in speech.

Data and Progress Monitoring

When the stakes are so high, it’s crucial to develop a reliable system for data and progress monitoring. The right approach can provide early identification of reading deficiencies and indicate the need for intervention to address deficiencies. Importantly, it can also evaluate the effectiveness of intervention strategies.

System of Instructional Supports

Perhaps the largest challenge of making a Third Grade Reading Guarantee meaningful is developing a system of instructional supports that meets the needs of a wide variety of learners at vastly different places in their proficiency journeys. Intervention strategies absolutely must be research-based, and be continually re-evaluated for effectiveness.

For more about the Third Grade Reading Guarantee, and to go in-depth with each of the strategies outlined above, read and share the full guide below. Also check out the recorded webinar at the bottom of this blog, featuring Barbara O’Brien, Senior Consultant for The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading and Dr. Mary Eisele, Director of Product Management for Direct Instruction at McGraw-Hill Education.


(1) Fiester, L., (2013). Early Warning: Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters. Baltimore, MD: Annie E. Casey Foundation. Available at http://lib.post. ca.gov/Publications/Building%20a%20 Career%20Pipeline%20Documents/ EarlyWarningConfirmed.pdf

(2) National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) Data Files from the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy”. Nces.ed.gov.