Reading Proficiency

Reading Proficiency––Is there a problem?

The short answer is yes. Proficiency in reading is commonly assessed by determining the proportion of fourth-graders not proficient in reading as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).1 This benchmark of academic performance is important because reading proficiency by the end of third grade is a critical marker in a child’s educational development. By fourth grade, children are expected to use reading to learn other subjects. Therefore, mastery of reading at this level is important for students to keep up academically. Children who reach fourth grade without being able to read proficiently are more likely to struggle academically and eventually drop out of school. Low reading proficiency also can reduce earning potential and chances for career success as adults.

Although there have been modest improvements since the early 1990s, progress has been slow on literacy gains, and racial and income disparities remain. Sixty-five percent of fourth-graders in public school were not proficient readers in 2017 — an alarming rate though slightly improved from 2009, when 68% scored not proficient.2  3 Thirty-five percent of fourth-grade students performed at or above the NAEP Proficient level on the reading assessment in 2019. This percentage was 1 percentage point lower compared to 2017 but was 7 percentage points higher in comparison to 1992, the first reading assessment year.4

As shown in the figure below from Child Trends, since 1992 there has been little progress in reading proficiency among fourth, eighth and twelfth graders.5

Reading Proficiency Chart

Racial differences in fourth-grade reading levels were great. In 2017, 81% of African-American, 79% of American Indian, 78% of Latino and 60% of multiracial fourth graders were not proficient in reading, compared with 54% of white and 44% of Asian and Pacific Islander students.

State differences in fourth-grade reading levels among public school students in 2017 were wide. Massachusetts was the only state where more than half of fourth-graders were proficient in reading. It had the lowest percentage of fourth-graders who were not proficient in reading, at 49%, compared with a high of 75% in New Mexico.

The percentage of eighth grade students in the nation who performed at or above the NAEP Proficient level was 32% in 2019. This percentage was lower than that in 2017 (35%) and was higher than that in 1998 (30%). The percentage of students in the nation who performed at or above the NAEP Basic level was 72% in 2019. This percentage was lower than that in 2017 (75%) and was not significantly different from that in 1998 (71%).

How parents and other caregivers can improve reading proficiency
Experts concerned with raising reading proficient children emphasize two especially important strategies.6 First begin early and continue with age appropriate reading interventions throughout childhood. Second, read to your child and maintain eye contact and other forms of personal attention to the process. Start with reading out loud, even to newborns, and keep it up as babies become toddlers. The more hours you do this throughout the day the better. Talk, listen and converse. The more words a baby, toddler or child hears the better their language development will be.

Other tips to support the attainment of reading proficiency:

  • Respect your child’s preferences, even though reading the same book over and over may bore you.  But it is up to you to introduce new books on new topics. 
  • Remember reading should be fun, not a chore, and the pace of learning will differ between children. So, let a child proceed at their own pace.
  • Don’t worry about format. Visually driven books like comics and other picture books are fine.
  • Subject matter should be age appropriate. Board books are good for babies up to age 3; picture books loaded with illustrations for ages 2 to 8; chapter books with more complex stories for ages 6 to 10; choose middle-grade books featuring adventure and fantasy and series books for those age 8 to 12; and young adult books are appropriate for ages 12 and up.
  • Make books easily available and support your child in building their personal library of favorite books.
  • Help your child get a library card and use a local library.
  • Magazines like National Geographic Kids can add variety to the reading menu.
  • If a kid is learning a sport, to cook, sew or repair their bike there is probably a book that can help them and it will help their reading skills.
  • E-readers are not recommended. Studies have shown that people, especially children, absorb and retain stories better when they read them in print, but they are better than no reading material.
  • Audiobooks count as reading, listen to them in the car.
  • Read the book before watching the movie.

What is the best way to teach reading?
The suggestions above do not get into the ongoing controversy about how to best teach reading. It concerns whether early instruction should use systematic phonics that focuses on letter-to-sound correspondences so that children can learn to sound out words or whole language that focuses on the meanings of written words in stories.7 8 9

Systematic phonics, a teaching method prominent in the U.K., explicitly teaches children letter-sound correspondences prior to emphasizing the meanings of written words. It is called systematic because it teaches letter-sound correspondences in a specific sequence as opposed to incidentally or on a “when-needed” basis. The commonest version of systematic phonics (synthetic systematic phonics),  teaches children the sound of letters in isolation and then coaches students to blend the sounds together to form the spoken word.

One linguist estimates that because English spellings are crazy, phonics can explain only about 50 percent of them.10  Think of “to” and “two” and “too.” Some proponents of systematic phonics use “decodable texts” that are composed of regular words, temporarily leaving out all irregular words. However, the fact that there are so many exceptions suggests that there might be something wrong with the alphabetic approach.

Whole language, a teaching method prominent in much of the U.S., primarily focuses on the meaning of words presented in text. Teachers are expected to provide a literacy rich environment for their students and to combine speaking, listening, reading and writing. Students are taught to use critical thinking strategies and to use context to guess words that they do not recognize. Whole language typically includes some phonics, but whole-language teachers believe that phonics instruction should be integrated into meaningful reading, writing, listening, and speaking activities and taught incidentally when needed. Whole language proponents assert that meaning-based instruction with unsystematic phonics is the more effective teaching method. However, the fact that some students struggle to learn with the whole language approach and clearly benefit from phonics suggests that this learning approach is not best for every reader.

So the reading wars debate is not about whether children need to learn about letter-sound correspondences. Rather, it is about how and when these correspondences should be taught, and in what context. One suggestion is that teachers should know the rules of the English writing system and recognize that the English spelling system represents both the sounds and the meaning of words. Children can be taught letter-sound correspondences and the regular way that morphemes (the most basic units of a word) are spelled.11 This approach emphasizes learning why words are spelled the way they are and the importance of meaning with the aim of making early reading instruction interesting.

Other resources

Success for All
Efforts to help elementary school students become competent readers include Success for All (SFA) a whole-school reform initiative. First implemented in 1987, its key elements include:  reading instruction marked by an emphasis on phonics and on comprehension; a highly structured curriculum; use of cooperative learning strategies across-grade ability grouping; frequent assessments; and tutoring for students who need extra help.

Additional components that address students’ noninstructional issues and strategies to secure teacher buy-in, provide teachers and leaders with initial and ongoing training, and foster shared leadership.

First-graders who had been enrolled in SFA schools since kindergarten significantly outperformed their counterparts who had been continuously enrolled in control group schools on two measures of phonetic and decoding skills, although not on measures of fluency and comprehension, which are higher-order reading skills.12

Mobilizing Volunteer Tutors to Improve Student Literacy
The Reading Partners program may be available in a few places.  It uses community volunteers to provide one-on-one tutoring to struggling readers in under resourced elementary schools.

Key Findings from an evaluation report:13

  • On average, students in the study received approximately 1.5 tutoring sessions per week, and spent 28 weeks in the Reading Partners program.
  • Reading Partners had a positive and statistically significant impact on three different measures of student reading proficiency. These impacts are equivalent to approximately one and a half to two months of additional growth in reading proficiency among the program group relative to the control group and are robust across a range of student characteristic subgroups as well as across groups of students who had different levels of reading comprehension skills at the start of the study.
  • Reading Partners is a low-cost option for under resourced schools because a majority of the costs are in-kind contributions, primarily from community volunteers. On average, schools bear only about 20 percent ($710 per program group student) of the total cost of the resources required to implement the program, and over half of these costs are in-kind contributions of space and staff time from the school.



1 2019 Kids Count Data Book. Anne E Casey Foundation, Baltimore MD. https://www.aecf.org/m/resourcedoc/aecf-2019kidscountdatabook-2019.pdf

2 2019 Kids Count Data Book. Anne E Casey Foundation, Baltimore MD. https://www.aecf.org/m/resourcedoc/aecf-2019kidscountdatabook-2019.pdf

3 U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress.

5 Child Trends DataBank. (2019). Reading proficiency.     : https://www.childtrends.org/?indicators=reading-proficiency

6 Paul P, Russo M. How to Raise a Reader. New York, NY. Workman Publishing;2019.

7 Strauss V. A case for why both sides in the ‘reading wars’ debate are wrong — and a proposed solution. The Washington Post. March 27, 2019

8 Bowers, J.S. (2018). Reconsidering the evidence that systematic phonics is more effective than alternative methods of reading instruction. PsyArXiv.https://psyarxiv.com/xz4yn/

9 Bowers, J.S., and Bowers, P.N. Progress in reading instruction requires a better understanding of the English spelling system Current Directions in Psychological Science. 2018;27:407-412.

10 Crystal, D. The Cambridge encyclopedia of the English language (2nd Edition). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 2003.

11 Bowers, J.S., & Bowers, P.N. (2017). Beyond Phonics: The Case for Teaching Children the Logic of the English Spelling System. Educational Psychologist, 52, 124-141.

12 Quint J, Zhu P, Balu R, et al. Scaling Up the Success for All Model  of School Reform  Final Report from the Investing in Innovation (i3) Evaluation. MDRC. September 15, 2015.

13 Jacob RT, Armstrong C, Willard JA. Mobilizing Volunteer Tutors to Improve Student Literacy. MDRC. March, 2015.

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