Why Third Grade is an Important Year for Students

Learn why parents and schools must work together before, during and after this critical grade to ensure their student's academic success.

Third grade is considered to be one of the most difficult years of a child’s K-12 education. The first benchmark year and a time where students’ performance directly correlates with promotion or retention, third grade students and teachers alike feel the pressure — especially in post-pandemic years.

From Learn to Read to Read to Learn

It’s an age-old philosophy — up until third grade, students learn to read. After third grade, students read to learn — meaning, there is a dependence on reading as a primary means of learning. Beginning in kindergarten and lasting until third grade, students master three areas of reading — decoding, comprehension and reading fluency.

Students who master decoding should be able to apply their knowledge of letter-sound relationships and letter patterns to correctly pronounce written words. Then comes the comprehension piece, where students know what words mean on a page and understand what it says. The final area is reading fluency, which is the ability for students to interpret an author’s literary devices, such as tone.

While these areas develop in different ways and at different levels throughout K-12 education, by the time a child has completed third grade, they should have a deep understanding of these three skills.

“At the onset of fourth grade, the focus for education shifts from learning to read literary and informational text to reading to learn content,” says National Education Consultant Gary Abud Jr., who is based in metro Detroit. “If there is a learning lag here, it can be difficult for students to catch up.”

Jennifer Mrozowski, director of communications for The Education Trust — Midwest, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research, policy and advocacy organization that works toward high academic success of all students, says decades of research show that promoting strong early reading skills for students is key to improving education.

“Students who read well by third grade have a better chance to succeed in school, are far more likely to go to college, participate in the job market and even have greater lifetime employment earnings,” Mrozowski says.

A Benchmark Year

Third grade is the first benchmark year when state and national education testing begins. The Department of Education determines which state assessment tools are used. At the national level, the most widely used test to measure reading and literacy in both public and private schools is the NWEA Map Test.

The NWEA MAP Test measures a student’s progress on reading and language usage as well as math. This test creates a personalized assessment experience by precisely measuring progress and growth for each individual student over time, as it is administered three times each year.

In Michigan, M-STEP is given to third graders each spring. This test measures how well students are mastering state standards in English language arts and mathematics.

Michigan students continue to decline in early literacy Mrozowski says that while other states have made progress on improving literacy in third grade, Michigan’s data in early literacy has long been troubling in comparison to other states.

“Michigan is among the lowest performing and improving states for early literacy,” she says. “In fact, while other states were incrementally improving their early literacy performance, Michigan’s students lost ground.”

Mrozowski says that underserved students, as well as students of color, are particularly suffering.

“There is much research that shows underserved students, including English learners, students with disabilities, students in rural areas and in high-poverty districts across the nation, faced the greatest challenges during the pandemic,” says Mrozowski. “As a result, students’ learning slowed during this period. But even more troubling, longstanding inequities worsened for students who already faced the biggest opportunity gaps, including Black, Latino and low-income students.”

Educators agree that making early literacy a priority is critical to support all learners and their future.

Retention Laws

One policy that aims to ensure that every child can read is the third grade retention law, which means that a third grader must be able to read at a certain level in order to move up to fourth grade.

While specific retention laws vary from state to state, they all require a child to meet a reading standard to pass third grade. In Michigan, students with IEPs or 504 plans may be able to move on to fourth grade without meeting the reading standard.

Pandemic Impact

The pandemic had a real and profound impact on students. In addition to the majority of schools across the nation switching to remote learning models, assessments were paused, as educators couldn’t ensure the integrity of the tests by administering them virtually.

“This was the first time we’ve seen assessments being paused at such a large scale at the national level,” says Abud.

Additionally, retention laws were waived based on extenuating circumstances, and all third grade students were eligible to be promoted to fourth grade in spite of their reading fluency.

School districts and educators seemed to take a targeted, responsive approach to learning loss to lessen the impact over time. For example, most teachers are not beginning with teaching exactly what fourth grade students should be learning. They are going back to the gaps in third grade and reteaching key areas that need to be in place before fourth grade.

“Teachers have spent much of this school year re-teaching and firming-up foundational literacy skills while simultaneously learning the grade level skills needed to be successful for years to come,” says Beth Rainbolt, reading intervention teacher and literacy coach at Monteith Elementary School in Grosse Pointe Woods.

Third grade teacher Megan Sims at Defer Elementary School in Grosse Pointe Park agrees.

“The academic gap has widened. As a third grade teacher, I am seeing more students needing to be retaught basic first and second grade skills to be successful with third grade content.”

Rainbolt also says that many teachers, including herself, have prioritized human connection learning methods over technology.

“I have nearly eliminated the use of technology apps in the classroom. During the pandemic, it felt like many of my students, as well as my own children, were inundated with all kinds of tech use at home, as it was the only way to reach our students at the time,” says Rainbolt. “I find that my time with students now focuses solely on interactive phonemic awareness, phonics and fluency activities as well as time spent reading actual books and writing on actual paper.”

Educators agree that it is important for parents to be on top of their children’s learning, so students, parents and teachers can all work together to address their goals.

How Parents Can Promote Literacy 

  1. Read to your children daily. Research shows the more children are read to, the better their reading skills end up developing.
  2. Have your kids read to you and provide feedback. Help them to decode words that might be difficult and reinforce skills they are learning at school.
  3. Practice sight words. Use sight word flash cards, apps and games. Practice sight words at the third and fourth grade level.
  4. Play word association games. These games help students to think about words differently, which helps build literacy skills for reading and understanding a text.
  5. Work on grade level appropriate spelling words. Give children a chance on a regular basis to practice spelling these words.
  6. Post words around the house. Have kids read them when they walk by.
  7. Listen to audiobooks or story podcasts. These can be a great tool for parents and kids to work on reading comprehension skills together.

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