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Why Does United Way’s Key Education Goal Focus on Third-Grade Reading?

Early literacy and language development are the foundation for future success in school and in life.

February 28, 2022

In 2020, United Way of Metropolitan Dallas collaborated with a diverse group of community partners to identify the goals that would guide our work and progress for the next 10 years. Our Aspire United 2030 goals are our North Star in the areas of education, income and health, keeping us focused on the key levers that will have the greatest community impact between now and 2030.

Our three main Aspire United 2030 goals are:

  • Increase by 50% the number of North Texas students reading on grade level by third grade
  • Increase by 20% the number of young adults in North Texas who earn a living wage
  • Increase to 90% the number of North Texans with access to affordable health insurance

Today we’re taking a closer look at our education goal—specifically, why the third-grade reading milestone is so important for a student’s success, both in school and post-graduation.

Third Grade: An Important Milestone in Education

Early-education experts often focus on third grade as an important learning milestone for students. Why? Because the ability to read opens the door to a child’s future, whether that takes the form of college, a career, the military or some other path. In fact, research indicates that children reading on grade level by the end of third grade are five times more likely to be college or career ready than their peers who don’t read on grade level.

Reading isn’t just great for children’s development, creativity and vocabulary. It’s the foundation for all other learning. When a student has strong reading skills, they are equipped to learn in other subjects, such as science, math, history and so much more. In fact, an estimated 85% of all curricula is taught by reading.

“Leading up to third grade, children are learning to read, but after that there’s a shift when they are reading to learn,” said Abigail Sharp, vice president of early childhood initiatives at United Way of Metropolitan Dallas. “Once children develop strong literacy skills, they are ready to begin learning and succeeding in every subject.”

Third-Grade Reading in North Texas Today

In North Texas, 50% of third graders read on grade level, or “proficiently.” Third-grade reading proficiency in our region varies significantly by race:

  • 35% of Black students read proficiently.
  • 41% of Latinx students read proficiently.
  • 62% of white students read proficiently.
  • 73% of Asian students read proficiently.

These figures are well below where we’d like them to be, especially since education is so closely tied to income and health later in life.

The Link Between Education, Income and Health

Education, income and health—what we call the building blocks of opportunity—aren’t standalone forces in an individual’s life. The three areas are overlapping and interdependent. And when young children aren’t set up for success in school—for example, by having strong reading skills—later in life it will impact their income and health.

The third-grade reading percentages above correspond to low college readiness statistics throughout North Texas, where more than 70% of students are not college-ready. Once again, the outlook is worse for minority students:

  • 15% of Black students are college-ready.
  • 17% of Latinx students are college-ready.
  • 42% of White students are college-ready.
  • 69% of Asian students are college-ready.

Graduates who aren’t ready for success in college (or a career) are more likely to end up with low-paying jobs. We see it play out today in North Texas, where 74% of young adults don’t earn a living wage.

Low incomes prevent many people in our community from achieving and maintaining good health, often because they can’t afford quality health insurance or get the care they need. In turn, poor health keeps adults from earning a steady income and prevents children from doing their best in school.

So, is third-grade reading an indicator of a person’s entire future? Of course not. But we do know that kids who enter school ready to learn are more likely to be “reading to learn” by third grade. And students who read proficiently are more likely to graduate from high school ready for college or career and living-wage jobs, when they can save for the future and cover the costs of health care—leading to success in school and life for their own children.

Join Us in Supporting Early Literacy

Research indicates that by the end of third grade, 74% of struggling readers won’t ever catch up. That’s why it’s so important for children to have literacy opportunities and exposure as early as possible.

At United Way of Metropolitan Dallas, we create, lead and invest in a variety of educational programs to improve third-grade reading proficiency in North Texas. We invite you to be part of the change by giving, advocating or volunteering to support early literacy in our community:

  • Give: Invest in United Way to support programs like Once Upon a Month™, which delivers age-appropriate children’s books to North Texas children every month to encourage language development and spark a love of reading.
  • Advocate: Join us in advocating for policy changes that will improve access to education for local students. Sign up for our Advocacy Alerts.
  • Volunteer: With United Day Reading Day coming up in March, this is a wonderful time to join us in promoting early literacy in our community. We invite you to volunteer to read to school children or sign up for a virtual book drive.

Invest in Lasting Change

When you invest in United Way, you create lasting change right here in our community. The money raised here stays here to improve access to education, income and health so all North Texans can thrive.