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Behind the Numbers: How Is the U.S. Doing in Teaching Children to Read?

Children start learning from the moment they are born, but one of the first things most children are taught — in a deliberate, structured way — is how to read.

We teach children to read because it is a foundational skill that opens the door to future learning. And reading isn’t just useful for learning in school. It’s an essential tool in modern society, necessary for many kinds of social participation, for exchanging and debating ideas, and for economic and social success. How well we teach our kids to read has long term implications for their lives and for the functioning of a democratic society. So how are we doing?

Not very well, it turns out. Many kids still can’t read as well as they need to.

The best source of information on how well students in the United States can read is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), sometimes called “the Nation’s Report Card.” Every few years since 1971, NAEP has picked a random sample of hundreds of thousands of students in the U.S. and tested how well they can read.

In 2019, NAEP showed that a third (34%) of U.S. fourth graders lacked even basic reading skills, such as determining the meaning of words in context or identifying explicit details from the text. Another third (31%) of students had basic reading skills but weren’t reading at the level that experts deem “proficient” for fourth grade. That leaves only one third of fourth graders (35%) proficient in reading at fourth grade. [1]

We aren’t excelling by international standards either. U.S. fourth graders ranked 15th out of 50 countries in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), an international reading assessment. That put us behind Russia, most of the Scandinavian countries, England, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Poland, and Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan. [2]

The mediocre average reading performance of U.S. elementary school students is concerning. If children don’t learn to read fluently, they won’t be able to “read to learn” as they get older. Reading is the gateway to knowledge and learning; we’re not opening that door wide enough for most children.

But even more concerning is that we’re doing a particularly poor job of teaching reading skills to children from low-income families, racial and ethnic minority families, and immigrant families. On average, 9-year-olds from low-income families — those eligible for the national free or reduced-price school lunch program scored two grade levels lower than those from non-poor families on the 2020 NAEP reading test. Black students’ scores were 1.8 grade levels behind White students; Hispanic students were 1.4 grade levels behind White students. [3] These stark economic racial and economic disparities in early reading skills are the result of persistent patterns of unequal educational opportunity in society.

The news isn’t all bad, however. Because the NAEP test has stayed essentially the same for over 50 years, it provides a long-term record of our progress in teaching young children to read. Over that time period, children’s reading skills improved substantially. From 1971 to 2020, 9-year-olds’ reading scores improved by almost one grade level, meaning 9-year-olds today have reading skills similar to 10-year-olds 50 years ago. The improvements have been even larger for Black and Hispanic students than they have for White students. As a result, the racial and ethnic gaps in early reading skills are much smaller today than in the 1970s: the White-Hispanic gap is half as large as in 1975; the White-Black gap has been reduced by one-third. [4]

A graph showing the trends of reading achievement at age 9 by race and ethnicity

Note: Average scores went up by 12 points from 1971 to 2020; black-white gaps narrowed from 35 to 23 points from 1975 to 2020; Hispanic-white gaps narrowed from 34 to 18 points from 1975 to 2020.  Data from: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 1971-2020 Long-Term Trend (LTT) Reading Assessments.

These gains in reading skills and reductions in racial and ethnic disparities are impressive. But even more improvement is needed and is possible. We know that more can be done to increase early literacy skills because more has been done in math. Nine-year-olds’ math scores have improved by twice as much as reading scores over the past 50 years. [5] While there are many possible reasons for this difference in trends math may have been emphasized more, or instruction may have improved more in math than in reading, for example the striking math trends suggest that similarly dramatic improvements in reading instruction and skills are possible.

Such improvement is necessary now more than ever. Promising pre-pandemic trends in achievement have been partially reversed by disruptions to schooling caused by the pandemic. The average reading score of 9-year-olds declined by roughly four-tenths of a grade level between 2020 and 2022. [6] Because students who were in early elementary school during the worst of the pandemic have lower reading skills than prior cohorts, these students will be disadvantaged as they progress through school unless concerted intervention efforts are made.

Even as we acknowledge that substantially more improvement is needed, it is worth asking why children’s reading skills have improved over the long term. Are children learning to read earlier? Are parents doing something different? Are elementary schools getting better at teaching reading? It’s always hard to clearly identify the causes of a long and substantial trend like that evident in NAEP scores, but each of these may have played a role.

We don’t have the same kind of long-term data on younger children’s reading development as we do for 9-year-olds, but the more recent evidence we have suggests more children are learning to read earlier than ever before. One big national study the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study measured the academic skills of more than 20,000 kindergarteners in both 1998 and 2010. Their teachers reported that students had much stronger early reading skills in 2010 than in 1998. For example, the percent of children who could consistently name letters rose from roughly 15% to 25%. [7] A new follow-up study starting this year will soon tell us whether this trend has continued since 2010. [8]

Why are children learning to read at earlier ages? One of the biggest changes in education in the last 60 years has been the expansion of preschool. The preschool enrollment rate among 3- and 4-year-olds in the US has increased more than fivefold in the last 50 years, from roughly 10% in 1964 to nearly 55% in 2014. [9] One of the things that happens in preschools is some basic literacy instruction: children learn the alphabet, basic vocabulary, and how to connect printed text to words they understand. And not only do more children attend preschool today, but preschools today are better, in general, than they were 60 years ago. The research is clear: when three- and four-year-olds attend preschool, their early language, reading, and math skills significantly improve. [10]

But it’s not just in preschool that children are learning early reading skills. Since the 1970s, parents have increasingly invested in their children’s educational and cognitive development. Evidence from two long-running surveys of parents, both of which have asked parents the same set of questions since the 1970s the Consumer Expenditure Survey and the American Time Use Survey show this clearly. Parents today are spending more money on their children’s education, spending more time with their children, and reading more to their children than their parents did with them a generation ago. The amount of money parents spend per child per year has increased by 70% since the 1970s; [11] the amount of time mothers spend caring for their children has increased by more than five hours per week. [12] And the percentage of parents who reported reading a book to their child at least three times per week increased from 82% in 1998 to 87% in 2010. [13] These investments are likely part of why reading skills have improved.

What about the role of elementary schools? Policy efforts to improve the quality of early reading instruction have been widely implemented in the past 25 years but have had mixed success. Recommendations to teach basic reading skills, like word reading, have been widely adopted in schools while recommendations to teach more complex skills, like vocabulary, content knowledge, and comprehension skills, have not been as successfully applied. Practical obstacles, like the difficulty of teaching students these complex reading skills and limited time, have stood in the way. [14] Attending to these challenges may help reading skills increase more substantially in the years to come.

Though race and ethnicity gaps in early reading skills have narrowed over time, they remain troublingly large. Disparities in early learning environments may be partly to blame. The expansion of public preschool has helped to narrow the gaps in preschool enrollment by family income, race and ethnicity, but they remain large. Children from higher-income families are still more likely to attend preschool compared to those from lower-income groups. [15] Parental investment gaps also remain large. For example, in 2010, 94% of high-income parents reported reading to their children at least three times per week, compared to 75% of low-income parents. [16] From 1975 to the 2000s, the amount of time mothers reported spending caring for their children rose by 8 hours per week for college-educated mothers compared to 4 hours per week for less educated mothers. [17] The gap in spending on children’s education between high and low-income families has nearly tripled since the 1970s. [18]

It's not just differences in what parents do that leads to the disparities in reading skills. Both income inequality and economic segregation have grown sharply since the 1980s. [19] Children in low-income families are doubly disadvantaged by these trends: their families not only have less income to provide educational opportunities, but they also increasingly live in neighborhoods with fewer resources, including fewer high-quality child care centers, preschools, and elementary schools. Under these economic and spatial divides, it’s not surprising that children from low-income families don’t have the same opportunities to learn to read well as their higher-income peers.

The increases in reading skills over the past 50 years show encouraging evidence that progress is possible. Kids today show stronger reading skills before kindergarten and at age 9 than previous generations. But reading proficiency remains lower than it should; and the racial/ethnic and economic gaps in reading skills are unacceptably large. We have a long way to go to ensure all students have the reading skills they need to succeed in school and in life. Larger increases in math skills over time show that we haven’t fully reached our potential in reading. And, following pandemic learning losses, now is the time to ensure that kids learn to read at higher rates rather than falling further behind.

References

[1] U.S. Department of Education. Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 2019 Reading Assessment.

[2] Warner-Griffin, C., Liu, H., Tadler, C., Herget, D., & Dalton, B. (2017). Reading Achievement of US Fourth-Grade Students in an International Context: First Look at the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) 2016 and ePIRLS 2016. NCES 2018-017. National Center for Education Statistics.

[3] U.S. Department of Education. Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 2020 Long-Term Trend (LTT) Reading Assessments.

[4] U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 1971–2020 Long-Term Trend (LTT) Reading Assessments.

[5] U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 1971–2020 Long-Term Trend (LTT) Mathematics Assessments.

[6] U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 2020 and 2022 Long-Term Trend (LTT) Reading Assessments.

[7] Bassok, D., & Latham, S. (2017). Kids Today: The Rise in Children’s Academic Skills at Kindergarten Entry. Educational Researcher, 46(1), 7–20.

[8] National Center for Education Statistics. (2022). Early Childhood Longitudinal Studies Program (ECLS)—Kindergarten Class of 2023-24 (ECLS-K:2024). https://nces.ed.gov/ecls/kindergarten2024.asp

[9] Chaudry, A., & Datta, A. R. (2017). The current landscape for public pre-kindergarten programs. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.

[10] Phillips, D., Lipsey, M., Dodge, K., Haskins, R., Bassok, D., Burchinal, M., … Weiland, C. (2017). Puzzling it out: The current state of scientific knowledge of pre-kindergarten effects. A consensus statement. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution. Yoshikawa, H., Weiland, C., Brooks-Gunn, J., Burchinal, M., Espinosa, L. M., Gormley, W. T., … Zaslow, M. J. (2013). Investing in our future: The evidence base on preschool education. New York, NY: Foundation for Child Development.

[11] Kornrich, S., & Furstenberg, F. (2013). Investing in children: Changes in parental spending on children, 1972–2007. Demography, 50(1), 1-23.

[12] Ramey, G., & Ramey, V. A. (2010). The Rug Rat Race. Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, 41(1 (Spring)), 129–199.

[13] Bassok, D., Finch, J. E., Lee, R., Reardon, S. F., & Waldfogel, J. (2016). Socioeconomic gaps in early childhood experiences: 1998 to 2010. Aera Open, 2(3), 2332858416653924.

[14] Duke, N. K., & Block, M. K. (2012). Improving reading in the primary grades. The Future of Children, 55-72.

[15] Chaudry, A., & Datta, A. R. (2017). The current landscape for public pre-kindergarten programs. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.

[16] Bassok, D., Finch, J. E., Lee, R., Reardon, S. F., & Waldfogel, J. (2016). Socioeconomic gaps in early childhood experiences: 1998 to 2010. Aera Open, 2(3), 2332858416653924.

[17] Ramey, G., & Ramey, V. A. (2010). The Rug Rat Race. Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, 41(1 (Spring)), 129–199.

[18] Duncan, G. J., & Murnane, R. J. (2011). Introduction: The American dream, then and now. In Whither Opportunity?: Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children’s Life Chances (pp. 3–23). Russell Sage Foundation.

[19] Chetty, R., & Hendren, N. (2018). The Impacts of Neighborhoods on Intergenerational Mobility I: Childhood Exposure Effects. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 133(3), 1107-1162; Owens, A. (2016). Inequality in children’s contexts: Income segregation of households with and without children. American Sociological Review, 81(3), 549-574; Piketty, T., & Saez, E. (2003). Income inequality in the United States, 1913–1998. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 118(1), 1-41.



Reading Universe is made possible by generous support from Jim & Donna Barksdale, the American Federation of Teachers, the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation, and three anonymous donors.

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