3rd Grade Reading Level

        Reading proficiently by third grade is highly correlated with high school completion, socioeconomic status, and lifelong health and wellness. One-in-six children who are not reading at grade-level proficiency by 3rd grade will not graduate from high school. The Tennessee Department of Education calculates this metric as “the percent of public school students in grade-three that test “on track” or ”mastered” for ELA in the state base accountability file.” Around third grade, children transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn,” a turning point upon which their future learning and educational success depends. 

        Currently, only 34.7% of Tennessee’s third graders are reading proficiently. TDE’s First Steps report on third grade reading level has set a goal for at least 75% of third graders in Tennessee to be proficient readers by 2025. According to the US Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), reading proficiency at grade 4 is 35% nationally. Improvements in educational outcomes produce long-term return on investment of more than $8 for every $1 invested during pre-k and elementary school years. 

        Early reading proficiency is a key indicator of future academic success, which is directly correlated with improved lifelong socioeconomic and health outcomes. Low literacy is associated with poor adherence to medical treatment, knowledge of basic information on health or the health system, pre-teen alcohol use, depression, the likelihood of engaging in a physical fight that requires medical attention, and carrying a weapon to school.   

        Children who are not reading at grade level by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school. This impacts both short and long-term earning potential. Only about 2% of individuals who finish high school, work full time, and marry before having children end up in poverty. However, for individuals who have none of those three qualifications, roughly 75% will end up in poverty. Poverty has the potential to lower the quality of life and to decrease life expectancy by decades. Poverty experienced early in life may suppress children’s genetic potential for cognitive achievement, as well as deny them intellectually stimulating opportunities in childhood. 

        There are many factors that may determine whether a student will be grade-level proficient by the third grade. Students who are at the highest risk of reading below grade-level are often low-income (a 29 point achievement gap on the NAEP) and students of color (a 25 point achievement gap on the NAEP).  In fact, 74% of fourth graders scoring below the 25th percentile on the NAEP were from low income families. 61% of low-income children have no children’s books at home, and hear as many as 30 million fewer words than their more affluent peers by the time they reach school-age.  The impact of family level income on children’s academic achievement has grown substantially since the 1960s. 85% of juveniles who interface with the court system are functionally low literate, reducing their likelihood of future educational attainment. 

        98% of children who never live in poverty and are reading at grade level in 3rd grade will graduate high school on time. Academic achievement in childhood is increasingly correlated with future earnings in adulthood, creating an intergenerational feedback loop that widens structural inequities.  

        There is also a persistent gap for students of color, who make up a disproportionate amount of low-income students.  Black and Hispanic children not reading proficiently in third grade are twice as likely as similar white children to not graduate from high school.  

        Nationally, female students have slightly higher reading proficiency than males.  

Vital Sign Actions Guide

The following are lists of intervention strategies that you, your health council, and other local stakeholders could use to address 3rd grade reading level in your community.  


1. Adult Literacy Classes

As one of the main predictors of child literacy skills, adult literacy is crucial for parents of young children. Consider partnering with adult literacy programs in your county to support family literacy or start an adult literacy program if your county doesn’t already have one. 


2. Animal Shelter Reading Programs 

Emerging studies show that when children read to animals, their literacy skills can greatly increase over a short period of time. This may be in part due to children’s increased confidence when reading for pleasure and without fear of judgement. Some animal shelters are now allowing children to read to shelter animals, with adult supervision.  Another way to expand this program is by bringing service animals to after school settings or libraries for children to read with.  


3. Books From Birth Foundation 

The Governor’s Foundation and Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library provide all children in the state of Tennessee with book from birth to age five, at no cost to the family. Through this program, any family in Tennessee has access to reading material to encourage literacy development in young children, starting at birth. Programs that increase access to books work best when paired with family literacy programs or after school reading programs. 


4. Every Child Ready to Read

Every Child Ready to Read is an education program that aims to better equip parents and caregivers to build literacy skills in their children. Curriculum provided by Every Child Ready to Read is primarily distributed through libraries, for caregivers of children birth to age five. Click on the link for curriculum, took kits, brochures, bookmarks, and posters. 


5. Increasing Accesss to Books in Community Settings 

Providing books in spaces that are frequently visited by families with small children can begin to mitigate a family’s lack of access to reading materials. Some great places to start a book lending program are at pediatricians’ offices, grocery stores, in faith-based organizations, and at summer camps to avoid the “summer slide.” Additionally, the Governor’s Books from Birth Foundation launched a Summer Mobile Literacy Unit (“Book Bus”) initiative to promote early literacy in children, providing books, literacy rich activities, and, in some cases, free meals to the families living in these communities. Participating school systems take decommissioned school buses and retrofit them with shelving and seating to house books, literacy activities, and engagement resources.


6. Language-Rich Playgrounds 

The Too Small to Fail organization is incorporating content from the “Talking is Teaching” campaign into playground signage and equipment. Landscape Structures (LSI) produces playground equipment that encourages learning and literacy skills during physical activity, for ages six months to five years. Other ideas for incorporating language and literacy into play spaces include installing a reading trail in parks and stencils on playgrounds. 


7. Little Free Library 

Little Free Library is a nonprofit organization that seeks to increase access to age-appropriate books in low-income and disadvantaged neighborhoods. Communities that have little to no access to a public library or other source of reading material for children can apply for a Little Free Library box to be placed outdoors for children to borrow books from. By increasing access to age-appropriate reading materials, this program aims to increase literacy skills in children of underserved populations. 


8. Ride & Read 

Ride & Read is a program that gets kids active and reading during school. Schools can either buy new stationary bikes or collect unused ones from the community to offer for kids to ride while reading through magazines or books. This program promotes physical activity and a stress-free reading activity for children to practice literacy skills. This is a great opportunity to partner with Coordinated School Health or the Project Diabetes. 


9. StoryWalk/Storybook Trails 

The StoryWalk Project and Storybook Trails are programs that involve installing pages of a children’s book along a path or trail for families or classes with young children to read. In addition to promoting literacy, and parental engagement around reading, Storybook Trails encourage families to connect with nature and engage in a healthy, outdoor activity. A story trail is a great opportunity to provide culturally appropriate texts in multiple languages for children of various backgrounds. Story trails can be installed in parks, at schools, along greenways, at children’s hospitals, in a mall, around a downtown square, or other public places. The Governor’s Books from Birth Foundation launched the Storybook Trail project along with Tennessee State Parks Conservancy and city parks. 


10. Talk With Me Baby 

Talking to babies, even when they can’t talk back, improves a child’s brain development and language skills before they reach kindergarten. The TWMB initiative aims to build a strong foundation for social-emotional and cognitive development and language and literacy ability, placing babies on a pathway toward third grade reading proficiency, high school graduation, and lifelong success. The Talk With Me Baby website has tips for talking to babies, printable advertising material, and a free app for parents and caregivers. 


11. Volunteer Reading Tutoring 

Evidence shows that volunteers who spend extra time with grade-school students and their families can greatly impact literacy skills, lessening or even closing the achievement gap. Extra one-on-one time with struggling students is a crucial step in attaining grade-level reading skills. Consider supporting a local tutoring program or implementing a program if one doesn’t already exist in your county. See the sources below for metrics on a national reading program and an example of a local, Nashville-based program. Consider implementing a youth reading program in a pediatric clinic setting for another great opportunity to reach families and children.


1. Community Foundations 

Purpose: Community Foundations offer small grants that focus on community-driven change in Tennessee. The Community Foundations in Tennessee include Appalachian Community Fund, The Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, Knox County Community Foundation, and East Tennessee Foundation. Most of these foundations consider healthy youth development as a focus area of grant funding. Counties can search for other local community foundations in addition to those listed here. 

Duration: Varies 

Amount: Varies 


2. Dollar General Literacy Foundation 

Purpose: The Dollar General Literacy Foundation supports youth literacy through grant funding in several priority areas. Funded areas include implementing or expanding literacy programs, purchasing technology or equipment, purchasing books or materials for literacy programs, and summer literacy programs for Pre-K through 12th grade students who are below grade level reading or who have learning disabilities. The foundation also supports family literacy programs. 

Duration: Varies 

Amount: Up to $3,000 (summer reading); Up to $15,000 (family literacy)


3. Tennessee Arts Commission 

Purpose: The Tennessee Arts Commission funds grants for community-based projects that address access to the arts and arts education. Specifically, Arts Education Grants are available for at-risk youth, teacher training, art education community learning, and art integration. 

Duration: Varies 

Amount: Varies 


4. Tennessee Department of Children's Services 

Purpose: The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services has announced a funding opportunity for programs, project, and activities related to Tennessee’s Building Strong Brains initiative. This initiative aims to address Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) by promoting safe, stable and nurturing relationships between infants/children and their care takers. ACEs are a strong predictor of early childhood brain development, and thus greatly affect grade level reading proficiency. 

Duration: One year, with opportunity to renew 

Amount: Up to $200,000


5. Tennessee Ready to be Ready Summer Grant Program 

Purpose: The Tennessee Read to be Ready Summer Grant Program awards funding for programs that target low-income students who often experience greater summer learning loss. Grants are distributed to support month-long summer instructional programs for first through third grade students. Programs must focus on providing rich reading and writing opportunities, and provide access to high-quality books cross various levels and topics. A school or a school district must apply through the Tennessee Department of Education for this grant. 

Duration: One year

Amount: Varies 


6. Tennessee State Library and Archives 

Purpose: The Tennessee State Library and Archives administers federal funding to museums and libraries in Tennessee through the Library Services and Technology Act. These grants are used to expand library services as well as provide family literacy classes. State funding is also available for increasing technology in local libraries. 

Duration: Varies 

Amount: Up to $7,000


7. The HCA Foundation 

Purpose: The HCA Foundation promotes health and wellbeing, childhood and youth development, and the arts in middle Tennessee communities through grant funding administration. Specifically, HCA grants focus on success in school, a primary outcome of grade level reading. Organizations must be 501(c)3 nonprofits in the Middle Tennessee area (see the website for eligible counties) to apply. 

Duration: Varies 

Amount: Varies 


8. U.S. Department of Education Grants 

Purpose: The U.S. Department of Education offers several competitive grants that aim to improve early literacy. These grants include Innovative Approaches to Literacy Programs and Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy. The US Department of Education also funds the 21st Century Community Learning Centers grants, a program that awards funding through the Tennessee Department of Education to establish or support community learning centers. These learning centers provide educational support and youth development activities during after-school hours and breaks. Among other activities, the grant funding can be used for academic enrichment, remedial education, limited English proficient classes, expanded library hours, family literacy, and tutoring programs. 

Duration: Three years (21st Century Grant) 

Amount: $50,000+ (21st Century Grant) 


9. Walmart Community Grant Program 

Purpose: The Walmart Foundation awards grants to local nonprofits, governmental entities, schools, and faith-based organizations for projects addressing multiple areas of community development. Specifically, grants are given out to fund initiatives that address education for low income individuals and families, as well as community and economic development. 

Duration: One year 

Amount: $250- $5,000


1. 100th Day of School  

The 100th Day of School celebrates all of the topics and skills that students learned in school that year. This celebration is also a way to encourage and celebrate good school attendance and combat chronic absenteeism. 


2. Attendance Awareness Month 

Attendance Works is a national organization combatting the effects of chronic absenteeism in students. Chronic absenteeism (missing more than 10% of classes in a school year) has lasting, detrimental outcomes. It is a leading predictor of decreased literacy skills and high school graduation rates. Attendance Awareness Month is a campaign that seeks to educate people about the harmful outcomes of chronic absenteeism. Click on the link for printable materials and social media tools.


3. National Read a Book Day 

National Read a Book Day occurs on September 6th and encourages families and children to read a book of their choice. Schools can promote this holiday to parents and caretakers who might wish to come read a book to the classroom. Use #ReadABook to promote this day on social media and challenge others to partake. 


4. Promote Vroom to Caretakers 

Vroom is a website designed to give tips to parents and caretakers about how to build their young children’s brains from birth through age five. Using brain building techniques leads to better school preparedness and higher academic achievement later in life. Promoting this service to parents in schools, pediatric clinics, and other organizations that serve families with young children may educate more families about the importance of brain building activities. 


5. Read Across America 

Read Across America is a national campaign promoted by the National Education Association that celebrates the birthday of the children’s author Dr. Seuss. Each year on March 2, every child in every community across America is encouraged to read. 


6. Talking is Teaching Campaign 

The “Talking is Teaching: Talk, Read, Sing” campaign aims to encourage parents and caregivers to talk, read, or sing to young children starting at birth. Simple actions, such as describing objects, singing songs, and telling stories, can improve a child’s brain development and language skills. See the source for campaign materials.


7. The Great American Read 

National Public Television promotes the Great American Read as a campaign to get everyone reading. The top 100 books are listed and people of all ages are encouraged to read as a part of this campaign.


1. Early Learning Program Accreditation 

The National Association for the Education of Young Children offers a voluntary accreditation program for early learning programs. Program accreditation requirements fall in ten areas—relationships with children, curriculum, teaching approaches, assessment, health, staff qualifications, relationships with children’s families, relationship with the community, physical environment, and program leadership. The goal of the accreditation process is to increase children’s positive long-term outcomes in life. 


2. Trauma-Informed Schools & Chronic Absenteeism Reduction Policies 

Local school boards and individual schools can work to reduce the number of children who are chronically absent (those who miss more than 10% of school days in a school year). When students miss school for any reason, they miss important instruction and class time. Policies can address student absenteeism by encouraging an up-to-date and comprehensive attendance reporting system, update disciplinary policies to decrease out-of-school suspensions, and creating safe and welcoming school environments that engage parents in the classroom. See the source below for policy brief and other recommendations. Schools can also be mindful of students struggling with their home lives by engaging in trauma informed policies through training. By training staff to handle students with trauma-informed care, the effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences can be lessened. 


3. Universal LIteracy Screening and Progress Monitoring 

The U.S. Department of Education supports universal screening for literacy as an evidence-informed promising practice. All primary grade students should be screened for potential reading problems at the beginning of the year and again in the middle of the year. School policies should encourage screening as early as kindergarten in order to better intervene in potential literacy delays. Click on the link for resources on how to screen students for literacy. 


1. Literacy Promotion at Pediatric Primary Care Visit

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that pediatricians promote literacy during primary care visits. The following recommendations were made: advise parents to read aloud with young children, counsel parents about developmentally appropriate share-reading activities, provide developmentally appropriate books given at health supervision visits (for high-risk, low-income families), use a robust spectrum of options to support these efforts that are culturally competent, and partner with child advocates to influence national messaging and policies. Policy should encourage clinicians to promote early literacy to families at all primary care visits, beginning at birth. 


*State employees are prohibited from engaging in
political activity not directly a part of that person’s employment during any
period when the person should be conducting business of the state (Tenn. Code
Ann. § 2- 19-207). For further information on State Employee Political
Participation, please visit: https://www.tn.gov/content/dam/tn/hr/documents/12-012_Political_Activity.pdf 

This document is not a Department endorsement of legislative policy.